notice what you notice

photo by Stephen Aubuchon

Perhaps one of the most profound gifts I have ever received was being introduced to (what would become) my life’s work, when I was an undergraduate student at Middlebury College, back in the ’80s. I can remember the voice of my teacher Penny Campbell, as she guided us through long sessions of eyes-closed improvisational movement research, walking quietly among our bodies in various states of moving, reaching, standing, rolling or resting. To bring our attention to different parts of our bodies, she would name them, inviting us to deepen the awareness, by awakening consciousness through movement.

Notice what you notice, she would say. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Simple and obvious…almost comical. I mean, what else would you, what else COULD you notice, besides what you’re noticing? Yet how much of our attentional space is taken up with the whir of mindless, endless, spinning thoughts that race after and interrupt each other to the point where they build a nearly impenetrable barrier between us and what is happening in the right now? How much of our attention is clogged with white noise that prevents us from even beginning to be able to pay attention in the first place, let alone notice anything at all?

How to break through that wall, how to get to the other side? By noticing what you notice. The words became like a mantra for me, they became the foundation of my ongoing practice of paying attention, the heart of my life’s work as an improviser, and also the underpinning of both my research and my improvisational pedagogy. They have taught me what I could not have learned from any other source, from any other practice, at the same time they have led me to a place where I have learned, (and keep learning) how to let everything I perceive become my teacher.

I say now to my students, as I say to myself: notice what you notice. Notice sensation. Notice what wants your attention, where the attention is drawn. Notice thoughts as they arise. Notice how sometimes you feel like you are along for the ride, simply following the snowballing-ongoing-unfolding of whatever it is you are doing, taking direction from your attention as if it had its own agenda. Notice how other times you find you can direct your attention, you can choose to focus that attention, here in the way the weight pours into your left foot as you hover in a balance, or here, in the energy fields of the bodies moving around you. Or here, or here…or here. Notice how you can move easily back and forth between these two modes, of following and guiding your attention. Notice the subtle differences, if any, in the kinds of things you notice from each approach. Do you feel more drawn to or curious about one or the other? Notice what you notice.

When you commit to the practice of noticing what you notice, you have no way of predicting what you will find, and here’s the thing…you don’t need to. You don’t have to know beforehand. (You can’t possibly, anyway…) And you don’t have to understand whatever shows up. You don’t have to recognize it, defend it or give it a name. You don’t even necessarily have to like it. You just need to be willing to make space for it to emerge, to find form. This is paying attention; this is noticing what you notice.

But what happens when you commit to the practice of noticing, and you don’t, in fact, like what you notice very much? Simple. You notice what you notice, and then you notice that the word notice is not the word judge. Hang on a second. Let’s take that line again. Notice that the word notice is not the word judge. Why is this important? Because when you are noticing, you are open, receptive, available, and able to respond. As soon as you allow judgment into the equation, you have, on subtle and not so subtle levels, put up a wall between you and the world. Between you and all the amazing information that comes your way when you invite the possibility of letting everything around you be your teacher. You have made an assumption about what something is, before you even have a chance of exploring or experiencing it. You have already said no. Noticing opens doors. Judging closes them. And improvisation is a practice of opening doors.

Notice how the practice of noticing, without judging, cultivates a kind of open friendliness with whatever shows up. Thoughts arise continuously, as you move, thoughts about the things you notice. It’s not necessary, or even useful, to label them good thoughts or bad thoughts, good things or bad things, they are merely thoughts, thoughts about the things we notice. When practiced this way, we can move freely through the field of possibilities, expanding our awareness by making choices, honing our craft as composers by noticing what we notice about the poetic effects of those choices. And so on.

I say to my students as I say to myself: Keep going. Keep noticing. Notice everything you can. Intentionally set yourself on edge by trying to pay attention to more than you can pay attention to… so that gradually you can pay attention to more. Yes, this is technique practice…yes, this requires discipline, and effort. Remember, this work is a practice, a life-practice and a life-long practice. And no, it’s not always easy. Except sometimes, when it is. And then we’re talking about being in what some might call a “state of grace.” Or maybe it’s just the “sudden” ease that arrives after hours (weeks, months… years?) of disciplined, determined practice. Easy or hard, the practice is the same: notice what you notice.

Lest we become confused with semantics, or caught up in a misunderstanding, let me say that committing to a practice of noticing without judging doesn’t imply a landscape without action, decision, volition, free will or aesthetics. Judgment is not the same thing as discernment.

In my world, improvising is composing (as opposed to just doing whatever you want without thinking about it, an unfortunate myth about improvisation I’ve been working to dispel my entire dancing life.) Another word for composing is choosing. Composing is choosing how to shape what happens between the beginning and the end, between A and B. Any fool can bumble, stumble and unconsciously schlep his way from A to B. Most of us spend most of our lives doing some version of just that! But to consciously shape the time and space between A and B, to choose to show up and pay attention, to intentionally swim in the infinite field of possibilities and actively participate in the unfolding of forms…this is the joy, this is the challenge, this is the task at hand. This is why I am an artist, why I’ve devoted my life to the practice of showing up and making things, even when it feels like I’m working in the dark.

This, I suspect, is why we are here.