Doug Bruns

Tools of Paying Attention

In Creativity, Life, The Examined Life, Wisdom on February 22, 2013 at 6:00 am
Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

Journals, Diaries, Notebooks

The action of paying attention is best practiced with a tool. The musician and his keyboard, the photographer and her camera, the meditator and her cushion, the writer and his notebook. There is an acuity of experience when traveling a city with a camera in hand that, without, is otherwise absent. All the tools of paying attention function this way: they enhance and, when loved properly, force experience in bold directions. Love is not too strong a word. There is not a devoted musician alive who does not love her instrument.

I once observed a master naturalist in the field make sketches and take notes which later in the day, around the fire, were  transcribed into elegant observations and artful renderings of the day’s work. Paying attention is a two-step process. Most people do not understand this. First comes the observation, then the transcription; first comes the practice, followed by the performance; first comes realization, then implementation. First you wash the dishes, then you stack them and put them away.

Susan Sontag, in an essay reviewing the career of Roland Barthes, wrote “[Barthes work] even begins and falls silent on the same subject–that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness, the writer’s journal.” Let me repeat: “that exemplary instrument in the career of consciousness.” The journal as exemplary instrument. For the writer, the journal is the tool best loved. The landscape photographer loves her wide-angle lens, while the pianist loves the action of the Steinway. The tools of paying attention are as numerous as the ways in which we choose to practice the craft of paying attention–for that is what it is, a craft. If you become really good at it, great perhaps, you become the artist. Be mindful, however, there is no art where there are no tools.

One might aspire to great things–but one must, to be a realized being, aspire to something beyond the adequate. (Note: might is optional, must obligatory.) To aspire does not make it so. There is no course of human accomplishment that does not require a fashion of tool. This was lost on me for many years, as I was not, until recently, fully educated in the career of consciousness. I pass along this knowledge in the hope it will save you time. Good luck.

And have a nice weekend.


  1. For Christmas this year I gave a young, budding photographer a book of 50 tips to improve your photographs. Number One was: Keep a Journal.

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