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Melissa Corkhill

By Melissa Corkhill

02nd August 2012

How often do we turn away from giving someone our full attention with mental promises to make it up to them later? In our time-starved lives, it is all too easy to be wrapped up in the day to day running of a family, and forget that one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is our full, undivided attention.

Melissa Corkhill

By Melissa Corkhill

02nd August 2012

Melissa Corkhill

By Melissa Corkhill

02nd August 2012

“What can anyone give you greater than now starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?”

As the poet, William Stafford says so simply, there is no greater gift we can offer ourselves and others than the gift of attention. When we are attended to, or attend to others with a kind heart and soft gaze, we immediately feel an infusion of life blood and a rooting of our scattered minds. This is true whether we turn our attention to ourselves, the environment or to others or whether we are the object of that attention. How is it, then, that we are so often unavailable or unwilling to access this most potent resource? How have we become so dis-tracted? No child can thrive without some modicum of attention. Yet, are we giving and receiving enough quality attention to allow us to feel at home on this planet?

Each one of us is born rooting for contact. Without the safety of dependable contact and an attentive response to our needs for food and comfort, we may carry the burden of abandonment fears throughout our adult lives. Yet, a happy dance of call and response is rarely the reality for most us. The new baby next door to me seems to be crying most of his waking hours. He does not know how to wait. The urgency of his cries is a heart wrenching demand for attention – now. His crying will not be controlled unless his feisty will and spirit are broken. To his exhausted and extremely conscientious mother, his demands may appear tyrannical and merciless as she struggles to get through the day, adjusting to his needs and personality. Having endured five weeks of this barrage on her nervous system, her capacity for attending to him must be wearing thin. Her own needs for rest, recuperation and support may well interfere with this powerful and extremely assertive voice within the family. A lively three year old also needs his share of the attention cake and is making sure he gets it! How the family negotiate this fragile balance of needs is crucial and has far reaching consequences for family harmony and well being.

As I write on this sparkling diamond of a day, my attention is caught by the flickering wings of a kestrel outside my window, ‘wind hovering’* over the wide expanse of green that is Alexandra Palace Park – the kestrel attending to her own need for food, the baby next door crying for his rightful attention and my own attention being captured by life being lived all around me. But what is this miracle of attention that so awakens the world and can seem so powerfully inaccessible in times of need? And how can we awaken it?

An education in attention requires the cultivation of patience, a very tall order in these irritable, impatient, zero tolerance and time managed days. A state of high alert, together with its accompanying muscular hardness, inhibits the soft, relaxed focus necessary for the attentive heart to connect. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, writes in his lovely little book, Silence and Honey Cakes that we all need an education in attention more than anything else. I like the “more than anything” else part. These are wise words that do not fit well with today’s competitive and urgent curriculum demands. If we were really to attend to the needs of each child, we would need to listen more and impose less. We would need to create an hospitable environment which welcomes children just as they are without expectations.

We would need to encounter them by responding to individual needs in a way that allows their dao or true nature to shine. I can think of no better model for the cultivation of attention than the one proffered by the psychologist, Carl Rogers. I call these conditions The Holy Trinity:

Carl Roger’s Holy Trinity conditions are Congruence, Acceptance and Empathy. Paying attention requires us not only to bear these qualities in mind, but to live them. The first condition – Congruence – means to literally flow alongside the child; to be in relation to,
in a person to person encounter without protecting oneself behind a role of authority. Such a relationship allows the educator to share her humanity and her passion for learning without that energy being drained by external demands for performance. A very high level of self awareness and self attentiveness is necessary for congruence to exist in relationship.

Acceptance is the unconditional positive regard which Rogers is so well known for. To accept another we need first to be accepting of our own emotional fallibility and frailties, to be conversant with our own emotional lives, and aware enough to pause within before being reactive and visiting knee jerk reactions on others. Self awareness training for educators urgently needs to be a large part of teacher training courses. The third condition,

Empathy, requires that we develop the capacity to stand in another’s shoes without the messiness and entanglement of identification. Again only possible if we are reasonably uncluttered and fairly non-judgemental of ourselves. Without empathy, we turn the other into an object requiring adjustment to suit our expectations and image.

ATTENTION HIJACKED No one has to tell a baby to pay attention. A baby’s attention is of the free floating kind which alights where it will and is led by the mysterious power of attraction to the “objects it loves”**. The relaxed, soft focus of a baby’s or toddler’s eyes is a delight to behold. As adults, we love to participate in that miracle of attentiveness by attempting to see the world through a child’s eyes. We may see a caterpillar spinning from a filigree thread, sycamore wings, falling snow or puddles with cleansed eyes! One spring, several years ago, I was looking after my two year old grandson, Joshua. He loved to stroke crocus flowers with extraordinary gentleness and love and I was invited to bend down too and see the saffron hearts of those early spring flowers.

However, as children grow, and especially when they enter the school system, we adults will increasingly ask for their attention to be paid for I don’t understand what this means! Sorry if being dense – does she mean that we expect children to pay us attention or that we have to buy things e.g video games, funfair tickets etc. to get children’s attention? Or what?! . At what price? Is this – what? why the Japanese believe that until the age of three or four, children are gods, demanding veneration?

And that a falling from grace happens when they encounter the harsh world of chronologically time bound institutional life? Rachel and Stephen Kaphlan, who wrote the book, ‘The Experience of Nature’, used the phrase “direction-attention fatigue” to describe what happens when children’s innate capacity for attention is, in effect, hijacked, and diverted into too much formal instruction and mechanical learning techniques. With no “idling time” to restore and rest the senses and to air the cluttered brain, our bodies become highly strung, agitated and restless, with an accompanying loss of pleasure, joy and contact with the natural world.

The Nobel prize winners, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, awarded for their research in quantum physics, profess to have playfulness at the heart of their work:in order to create something new, they allow their brains to “meander aimlessly”. This “idling mode” – a territory which lies outside our ‘normal’ conditioned sense of time – has been scientifically witnessed as the slowing down of alpha waves in the brain and is where new ideas spring from. Many impressive breakthroughs in science have presented themselves in dreams when we inhabit another time zone and are at our most attentive, receptive and relaxed, although we don’t know it! In our dream worlds, our ego selves are well out of the way. The forced concentration necessary for many classroom activities inhibits this “dreamtime”.

Wrapped up warmly in the word attention is the little word tend. To tend the fire of our passions and those of our children, we need a safe container, or the fires will find more destructive routes, as in the youth riots of last summer. An African proverb says it clearly: “If the young are not initiated into the village, they will burn it down just to feel its warmth.”

Even a little clumsiness or impatience can dampen the flames, as even a breath of awareness can ignite a spark. It is interesting to note here that the word focus comes from the Latin, meaning a hearth or contained fire. When we allow the present moment to ripple into focus, we see more clearly what needs attending to. We can be that fire container for our children within the context of our busy lives by giving them the time they need and consciously creating spaces for them to explore and experiment at their own pace. This may require us to wait rather than leaping in with well meaning instruction, advice or fixes. The French word attendre means to wait. Attention, therefore, does not mean bombarding with questions and giving exaggerated praise but is more a quality of listening without judgement, moralistic comment or knee jerk reaction.

Allowing a child to be authentically present to herself, is a gift beyond price. Her soul will warm because of that trust in her presence. In his book ‘Finding Silence’ the writer, James Roose Evans, describes how impressed he was on a visit a multicultural primary school on the outskirts of London where a teacher encouraged her children to use and develop their emotional intelligence by introducing a daily “Candle Time”, during which the children were invited to share from their hearts. By daily integration of regular, ritualistic sharing of such experiences as loss or sadness, the children had developed an attentiveness, openness and compassion which impressed Evans deeply. That their teacher was a trained counsellor and able to contain such delicate and charged feelings is significant.

When we really listen to the needs of a child, we allow that child to trust herself and have faith in her own nature and abilities. If, as Carl Jung wrote, each child is born with his or her own totally unique blueprint, the purpose of education is to attend to the emergence of that blueprint. We only do this by allowing the child to be a full participant in her own life, rather than assuming she is an empty vessel that needs to be filled with knowledge. One curriculum or formula to fit all can only serve to constrain the leaping sprits of our children. In therapy too, I believe, it is the gift of Attention, that wonderfully tenderising process, which contains the healing potion, not the style or mode of approach. When a child or adult feels heard she, in turn, can hear and see with more clarity and she can get on with growing without the constant tripping over of obstacles or numbing of the senses. She will grow deep roots, as well as wide wings.

  • This refers to the kestrel in Gerald Manley Hopkin’s poem, “The Windhover,”

  • This phrase was coined by W.D. Winnicott, the paediatrician and psychoanalyst.

Further Reading:
Finding Silence James Roose – Evans
Silence and Honey Cakes Rowan Williams
The Experience of Nature Rachel and Stephen Kaplan
Freedom to Learn Carl Rogers & H.J. Freiberg

Ruth Meyers graduated as a primary school teacher from L.S.U., Southampton in 1972. Since then she has worked in a wide variety of settings with children, including playgroups and inner city primary schools. She is interested in spirituality and the natural world and lives in North London with her husband, Richard. At present, she works as a literacy tutor for the charity Springboard for Children in an inner city school.