I realized something the other day…..my dog doesn’t realize that I pick up his poop.
He is always looking somewhere else as I skillfully manoeuvre my little baggies to remove any trace of his presence. I’m sure he knows there are bags. He knows there is a pause after he does his business in which he is supposed to stay put. But I really don’t think he knows that I pick it up. Perhaps he does know all of this, but thinks it so strange that I would engage in this practice that he’s taken to looking away, almost in embarrassment. The reason I’m so sure he doesn’t know about my fecal removal routine is because he is so choosy about the spot he goes on. You’d think after 13 years, if he really knew that it was going to get picked up anyway, that he wouldn’t use laser precision to choose his spot. (Regardless by the way of whether it is 40 degrees below zero, or a tsunami is immanent)
So I was having difficulty sleeping a few nights ago and thinking about this – what seems like a trivial issue – and since I had nothing better to think about, I decided to do the math in my head.
See I’ve been walking this dog for 10, almost 11 years. If my calculations are correct, I’ve picked up in ballpark of 7000 dog turds. Some people count sheep when they can’t sleep, I count….
Well after I’d finished counting, and still couldn’t sleep, I got to thinking this:
“What else in my life has happened around 7000 times that I don’t ever pay attention to, or even know is going on?”
“Am I more like my dog than I’d care to admit – too preoccupied with what’s going to happen next to notice what’s happening now?”
In some ways the question is impossible to answer: if I haven’t paid attention to it, how could know whether I’ve missed it or not?
But the possibility that there are things constantly going on around me that I’m inattentive to, is perhaps more crucial than the things themselves.
And as I still couldn’t sleep that night, I reflected upon all the thousands of nights when sleep has come easily to me. So easily, that I didn’t have to pay attention to it at all.
It’s so often the case that we don’t really pay attention to something until there’s a problem. When those daily dependables that usually run smoothly stop functioning at our convenience, we start to notice them and recognize how much we’ve been taking for granted. Anyone who’s been without electricity or running water for more than a couple hours knows what I’m talking about.
But here’s my concern: what do we miss by not paying attention to the commonplace things of life?
With all the distractions in our lives is there a hidden cost to being so incredibly absent from our experiences? I realized recently that when I’m teaching mindfulness practices to my patients, this is one of the mental postures I’m inviting people to engage. That there is tremendous value to tuning in to the commonplace and ordinary things of our lives. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves for this tendency. After all, our brains are biased. Our default setting as humans is to pay more attention and remember when things go “wrong” while neglecting what’s happening in those big spaces that make up the rest of our lives. We don’t remember last Tuesday when we ate meatloaf and watched re-runs of Friends, unless the tacos gave us food poisoning or any one of the cast members finally learned how to act. Without realizing it we can become that manager, or spouse, or coach, or parent that everybody loathes; the one that only says something when there’s a problem, and never acknowledges the beauty and goodness of the in-between.
Life is a gift. Everything in our lives is a gift. If our attentiveness is limited to problem-solving, to novelty, to the unexpected, we miss out on most of the amazing gifts that exist in the mundane, run-of-mill, feeding-and-cleaning-up-after-kids parts of our existence.
I know I’m not even remotely saying something new here. Others have articulated it more beautifully than I have. But perhaps the point is not to say something new – only to bring your attention back to what’s already there. Today we can stop and notice. We can remind each other that there are things like picking up dog poop going on all around us. While my dog may not grasp the significance of the act even if he were to notice it there is goodness and kindness in the act of removing his fecal matter from my neighbor’s lawn. There is a demonstration of care – for the dog, for the neighborhood, and for my wife who can stay inside on bitterly cold days while I walk the faithful hound. Care is a gift. The capacity to care, the opportunities to care for, and the receiving of care – these are all gifts.
And while my dog may not have noticed the act of my poop removal, until now, I hadn’t really paid much attention either. At least not to the significance of this ordinary act repeated 7000 times over. In the act of noticing this seemingly unremarkable activity, I strangely rediscover the caring and gifting in daily life.
Paying attention and being present takes much deliberate practice. It is not something we change through a moment of insight, but through a life in which we choose disciplines and rituals that slow us down and orient us towards contemplation and reflection. It’s a movement towards practices of attentiveness that run counter to our human brain’s proclivity for crisis management. It’s swimming upstream in a culture that incentivizes distractedness and being anywhere but here. My smartphone has made it a much bigger challenge for me.
So today might I encourage you to pay attention. But even more I encourage you in the journey of practicing attentiveness; of finding practices and rituals that regularly bring you back to attention to all that is going on around you. And in the midst of it whether it be dog poop or insomnia or any of the 7000 normal things in your life, may you see and enjoy the gifts of daily life.