On Paying Attention and Seeking Awe

Ashwini Sriram
3 min readFeb 12, 2024
  1. Pay attention.
  2. Be astonished.
  3. Tell about it.

These are the rules of living a life, according to Mary Oliver, my favorite poet.

The act of paying attention is the key that unlocks joy. I am more convinced of this now than ever.

Every great philosopher from the Buddha to Thich Nhat Hahn and Lao Tzu talks about the role of attention in the pursuit and attainment of peace, and that elusive thing: happiness.

In more recent times, scholars like Dacher Keltner, who studies “awe”, have shown that a person can unlock joy just by being awed in their daily lives. Stand in front of the awe-inspiring El Capitan in Yosemite, and you instantly feel smaller, and less likely to focus on yourself, and more likely to be philanthropic.

The catch however is that in order to be in awe, we need to pay attention.

Taking a breath, and looking around is something that many of us don’t have the mental space or the time to do because our minds are filled with worry, anxiety, and stressors.

My home office overlooks my beautiful front yard with red roses and camillias. I’d be able to see pink-necked hummingbirds if I cared to look. However, usually I am so deeply absorbed in work stress that I simply don’t see all the beauty. Yes, I look at the hummingbird with my eye. But I am not really seeing.

I have noticed that whenever I sing, paint, write, or read, I feel happier. Similarly, meditating, talking a walk in the park, and travelling also make me feel exuberant and joyful. They make me forget about my worries. Why? All these activities require me to pay attention. They need my presence. Singing a note beautifully involves inhabiting the note. Like practising art, or gardening, meditation too can help us train our minds to pay attention. Noticing the world, and noticing how we feel are both the same exercise ultimately.

Similarly, travel forces us to pay attention too, which I believe, is why it is so enjoyable.

“In an age of speed, I began to think, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing can feel more luxurious than paying attention. ”

Pico Iyer, The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere

For Pico, travel is only as rich as the attention one brings to the place around them, turning all of one’s senses “on”. We’re all guilty of sleepwalking through life. We know the routine of the day too well to be in awe of it. Wake up, get ready, eat breakfast, work, cook dinner, sleep. Rinse and repeat. With travel, however, our senses are heightened because of the unfamiliarity of the space.

“When we are lost we find what we never thought to look for. I travel not to leave my home but to leave my habits behind so that I’m not sleepwalking”

— Pico Iyer

“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer,” Simone Weil observed as she considered the relationship between attention and grace at the peak of her short life. I completely agree. While attention by itself can elevate our lives, we could live even more meaningfully if we let the things we pay attention to, move us, fill us with awe and wonder.

“Attention without feeling,” Mary Oliver wrote a generation later in her beautiful elegy for her soul mate, “is only a report.”

What good is paying attention to a hummingbird if I cannot marvel at its beauty! Whatever fundamental reality might exist, we live out our lives in a subjective reality defined by what we agree to attend to. “An act of pure attention, if you are capable of it, will bring its own answer,” D.H. Lawrence wrote. I’ve experienced this in my own life. Nature brings me answers if I care to look. People are always helping me; I just don’t notice it. We all live in a delicate web of actions and words, most of which we aren’t paying attention to!

Let’s change that today, shall we?

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Ashwini Sriram

Technology leader from Chennai living and writing in San Francisco.