Paying Attention

Witty Sandle
Paying Attention
Paying attention is essential to our ability to know and understand things intellectually, physically, and emotionally. It allows us to focus and find meaning in our experiences. It is not a superpower exclusive to a few individuals, but instead, attention is a necessary component to making memories and telling our stories in ways that make meaning of our lives.

Attention and Memory
Neuroscience has taught us much about how our brains operate, and one area in which research has increased our understanding is the anatomy of memory-making and its relationship to attention. This is of particular interest to me as a Spiritual Director. In every session, it is not long before we turn to memories, specifically biographical memory.

This is not the place to get scientifically technical, but we know that without attention, memories stand little to no chance of being made. Lisa Genova, Neuroscientist and author, devotes a chapter of her book, Remember, The Science of Memory and the Art of Forgetting, to attention.¹ She explains not only the science of attention (neural pathways and synapses and so on) but the importance of attention in an increasingly distracted world. Memories play an important role in interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Through memories, we derive our sense of self, others, and our world. The importance of memory is brought home when we witness its degradation, such as in those with dementia.

This is personal for me.

My mother-in-law, who died in 2014, had Alzheimer's Disease, a brutal type of dementia, and my father-in-law is currently experiencing a more generalized form. Although we can differentiate causes, one of the heartbreaking symptoms is to see the gradual impairment of memory and the attendant loss of histories, once forged in the crucible of living each day, paying attention, consciously and unconsciously.

Søren Kierkegaard, the 19th-century philosopher, once observed, 'Concepts, like individuals, have their histories and are just as incapable of withstanding the ravages of time as are individuals. But in and through all this they retain a kind of homesickness for the scenes of their childhood.' Childhood is where first memories are encoded in our brains; as such, they are powerful, even when they come back to us in fragments. Often, fragments of their past are all that those with dementia have, but in the attentive presence of others, even those traces can take on a beautiful coherence. This applies to all of us. We simply need the listening ears and hearts of others, which will allow us to rehearse our memories.

This leads me to my next point.

Attention is not only crucial for capturing biographical memories in the first place. It is necessary if we are to make sense of them.

Attention, Meaning-Making, and Stories
We are story-telling people. Margaret Atwood declares, 'You're never going to kill storytelling because it's built into the human plan. We come with it.' ² We must, and do, tell stories to make sense of our world and our place in it. We will consciously and unconsciously weave together our episodic memories (another way of describing biographical memories) into some form of narrative. Whilst acknowledging that our memories are fallible, selective, and personality shaped (it is why two people will remember the same upbringing very differently), the broader point is that we cannot make any meaning of our lived experiences without this necessary act of storytelling. Without this, our memories remain fragments, floating around in space with no gravitational pull – nothing to tether or anchor them. Places, people, events, and names all fail to relate to one another in any meaningful way. Kierkegaard recognized this. 'Life,' he writes, 'can only be understood backwards.' An important way of making sense of our lived experiences is when we listen deeply to one another.

When we practice presence, bringing our whole attention to the person before us, we allow them to create and recreate their stories. We become the mooring place that safeguards their ability to make meaning. It does not only happen in the professional ministry of Spiritual Direction. It happens in living rooms, around dinner tables, coffee shops, and offices. It happens every week when my husband faithfully calls his dad and, with gentle prompts, helps him piece together his failing memory into some kind of lucid narrative.

Attention creates memories. Actively paying attention to those memories, especially in the presence of others, helps us ensure that the past is never utterly lost. It retains the power to shape our present and our future.

¹ Find out more about Genova's work at:
² Margaret Atwood, Poet and Novelist.

Witty Sandle
Witty works as the Career and Vocational counsellor at The King’s University in Edmonton, Alberta, where she also directs the work of the Centre for Career and Calling. She combines her professional career development background with her spiritual direction skillset, offering spiritual direction, and retreat and workshop facilitation. She is a certified MBTI practitioner and an enneagram enthusiast. She graduated from Portland Seminary in 2019 with a Masters in Spiritual Formation and obtained her Certificate in Spiritual Direction the following year. 

Witty is deeply interested in questions of vocation and the questions that arise as we discern our ways of being in the world and our calls to faithfulness. She describes her own vocation as seeking to be an attentive presence, creating safe spaces where others can discover all they are called to be and do.

Find out more about Witty’s work at: