I remember how I would pause with my morning coffee. I wrapped my hands around the body of my mug, the curve of the handle the perfect size through which to lace my fingers. I noticed the smooth pottery, the way it felt as the warmth pressed into my hands on the crisp morning. I watched the lazy swirl of steam escaping in curling wisps into the air. I felt my feet resting on the floor and considered the often-overlooked feeling of my feet pressing on the carpet and the floor pushing back, holding me in place. The wooden chair was hard, standard dormitory issue, but it too kept me in place. I sat, paying attention, rooted, just for a moment, in physical space and time. Inhale—the feeling of my chest swelling with air. Exhale—the release, my shoulders sinking down, down, down, releasing a breath’s worth of tension. This is what it feels like to be alive, I thought. I am here. I am alive. And, for one tangible moment, that was enough.
At the time, I was a college senior and weighed down with my first major experience with depression. I walked through the days in a fog, mechanically going to class, eating meals (with varying degrees of dedication), and attending rehearsals for the small music ministry I was directing. I kept moving, but just barely. When I think back, my memories are hazy. My thoughts then were hazy too, as my mind suffocated under feelings of desperation, anguish, and despair. I was trapped in my mind, unable to break free, kept in a foggy prison. It was in this season, ironically enough, that I first learned the value of paying attention.
You don’t have to be depressed to struggle to stay in tune with your physical surroundings. Our culture easily pushes us forward at a rapid pace. Even as many of us remain stuck at home in the midst of a pandemic, we’re desperately multitasking—monitoring children’s virtual schooling, tuning in for yet another Zoom meeting, checking email on our phones, cooking dinner, and trying to find a creative way to connect friends in our isolation. I swirl on, trying to juggle it all, trying to keep it all afloat.
Lately, this has brought me back to that practice of paying attention. Or attending. At its root in Latin, the word “attend” literally means “to stretch toward.” I’ve needed to practice the discipline of attending in the midst of depression, because it pulls me from my dark thoughts and keeps me stretching toward the tangible, broken, beautiful world around me. I’ve needed it in the midst of pain because even in the midst of suffering there is space for sips of delight. And I’ve needed it when I’m more stable, and I’m inclined to rush past joy to keep up with the frenetic pace.
There’s so much I rush past on normal days. The smell of my shampoo in the shower, the texture of my husband’s shirt against my cheek, the way the sun shimmers on my daughter’s soft curls. I can’t remember what the cashier looked like at the grocery store, or even where the smile lines are on my parents’ faces (though I know they’re there). So much color, such a feast, so much vibrant life. It’s there if I pause long enough to stretch toward it. It’s there if I have eyes to see.
Sometimes, I need to simply stop and pay attention. I notice the sensation of the breeze kissing my cheek, of the way the sun warms my face. I stop to look my small daughter in the eyes and see her delight, stoop down to see the world as she does, slow my pace to match hers. I listen to the sound of crashing waves, the sound of a unique birdsong, the sound of the neighbor kids yelling back and forth to each other in the backyard.
This practice of attending is one my soul desperately needs when I’m under the cloud of depression, the twist of anxiety, or the flurry of stress. It doesn’t permanently fix my mental health struggles and it certainly doesn’t remove tasks from my to-do list, but it does keep me rooted in the dappled beauty of the life I’m living. Each pause, each breath, each thing I create space to truly experience grows roots within me, keeping me in the present moment. It helps me remember: I am here. I am alive. God is present with me. And for this fleeting moment, that is enough.