One day my husband came home from a business trip and immediately asked me what had happened to our neighbor's tree. Only then did I realize that the beautiful tree that had shaded our property for decades had been chopped down. Days before I had "sort of" realized that the front of our house had become sunnier, but had given it little thought.
For a mini-experience of this phenomenon, take a moment to look at this well known Jasper Johns lithograph. What captures your attention?
The image simultaneously depicts one goblet and two profiles, as you may already have known. We can literally "see" both the goblet and the profiles, but are only "aware" of one at a time. Even though I know the trick, it still usually takes me a moment to become aware of both images.
Life has taught me that I miss a lot; perception and awareness are two different things. My "aha" moments (like discovering the tree had been chopped down) focus my attention on the things that I have ignored, even though I have "sort of' noticed them. This experience of "sort of knowing, but not really" is a common feature of human life. There is so much happening in our world that we are don't know, so much that we don't even know that we are missing. The truth is that there are only a finite number of things to which we can pay attention.
Take a minute to try this awareness test if you haven't done so before.
When it comes to your emotional life, "sort of knowing something" can become a clue for "really knowing something" -- if you know where and when to pay attention. Had I given some thought as to why my living room had suddenly became sunnier, I surely would have figured out that my neighbor's tree had been chopped down. However, I didn't really care.
If you really care about straightening out your inner world, start paying more attention to your emotional life. You will likely begin having many more "aha" moments, when you put two and two together about your emotions and your experience and something clicks about who you really are, and how you really feel. You will begin to know more about your true self.
For example, you might "sort of" know you are mad at someone, but pay no attention and believe that everything is fine. By thinking about your fleeting feelings of anger, you might realize there is a problem in your relationship that can be addressed, or at least one that is important to understand. Or if you find yourself crying at a sappy commercial, you may "sort of" know that you are sad about something more personal, without paying attention to what you are "really" crying about. If you notice your sorrow and ponder its true source, you might realize that you haven't finished mourning an important loss. The payoff for this kind of attention might be that you are able to complete your mourning, and are freed to move one.
What parts of your emotional life are you "sort of" aware of, but not paying attention to?
We often learn what we are missing only after other people bring things to our attention, as happened to me when my husband noted the absent tree. Once you decide (and believe) that your own emotional reactions are important, you will start paying more attention to them. By becoming more consciously aware of your feelings, you will then be better able to align your inner emotional world with your conscious thoughts -- to feel more whole.
Reflect on what kinds of things you pay attention to.
- Are you oriented to your senses? Which ones capture your attention? Do you focus on aesthetics, regularly noticing small changes in your visual world?
- Do you pay attention to small changes in your body?
- Do you notice your own emotions?
- Have you paid attention to how you feel about significant experiences in your past?
- Do you tend to notice other people's emotions? Are there certain people whose feelings you are more sensitive to than others? Why might that be?
Paying attention to your emotional responses lets you know how you really feel about the changes that happen in your life, and allows you to address them. What you aren't aware of can hurt you; playing with a full emotional deck can free you to have a richer, truer, and more satisfying life.