Birds flying over field at sunset


In Insight and Self Awareness by Anne Wilson SchaefLeave a Comment

The gift of noticing is so precious that we need to take some time to notice that we have it and lovingly develop and honour it.


One of the greatest assets we have as human beings is the gift of noticing. This gift of noticing is very fragile and can easily be ignored, underdeveloped, or trampled on as we move through life.

I was fortunate to have grown up in a family that prized this particular skill and took pains to develop it in me. As I am writing this, I hear these words careening around in my head, “Look Elizabeth Anne. See what this bug is doing?” (I was named Elizabeth Anne as a child and upon entering high school decided that I wanted a name shorter and more chic; so I dropped the Elizabeth for many years and now am coming back to it. Elizabeth means ‘house of God’. Perhaps I was not ready for that. Anne means gracious. I could handle that one as Grandma always said, “Always err in the direction of graciousness”.)

Once I was engaged in noticing what the bug was doing, I could be involved for hours with that bug. I don’t know how much the bugs learned – I learned a great deal from watching bugs. Almost always, I was encouraged to share my bug learning at the dinner table in the evening.

I was always encouraged to ‘notice’ on walks with my mother. I learned to listen for, and distinguish bird calls and sounds in the forest. I learned to listen to, and watch for subtle sounds and movements in the grass so I could be aware of the presence of others whose home was there and that I was intruding upon.

It was very important that I noticed and respected the snakes, especially the copperheads, as they were very poisonous and gave no warning like the rattlesnakes did. Also, as I developed more awareness, I began to see tiny clues in the ground cover where things were broken or disturbed. Many years later these skills helped me track my horses over rough and rocky terrains when they got loose.

Mother was good at noticing and would often say, “We better get back. It is going to rain soon”, when there was not even a cloud in the sky. And, rain it did – always. She never ‘explained’ what she noticed. She was teaching me to notice, not explaining how to notice. I now know that to take ‘noticing’ into our head and our thinking, in most cases, destroys or at least inhibits the skill. For example, as I was pondering what to write for this piece, I lay down to rest because my best ideas come when I am not paying attention and am alertly waiting to notice. As I lay there, I ‘noticed’ that my arm was uncomfortable, and moved to adjust my position. At that point, I knew that ‘noticing’ was what I wanted to write about.

I believe that one of the greatest skills we have as human beings is noticing – internally and externally.

For example, as a young professional I was one who practised the ‘busy little girl syndrome’. I was always so engaged with what I was doing that I did not ‘notice’ that I needed to go to the bathroom – until it was almost too late. Then I would dash. I soon learned that noticing what was going on inside my body was not only necessary for my health, it was necessary for my well-being.

Our bodies give us all sorts of warning signals that something is ‘not quite right’. We are not sick yet; we are pre-sick. We are being warned. If we pay attention to those signals, we probably will not get sick or we will catch the illness in time. If we ignore our noticings and keep on pushing, our bodies will give us a whack to get our attention. If we obsess and focus on our bodies, we probably will not notice either.

Noticing is our gift as humans. Often, we don’t notice that we have it.

When I ‘listen’ to someone, I listen to what, how, and when someone is saying something. I listen to what the person is saying noting that what that person is not saying may be far more important than what s/he is saying. I listen to the body language. Is the body tense? Are they fidgeting a lot? Is their foot tapping or their leg bouncing? Do they appear ill at ease? Do they look me in the eye, look down, challenge me with their eyes, or are their eyes darting? While I am observing them, I am listening very carefully to their words, the tone of their voice and anything that seems or sounds strange to me. During this time, I am not judging or interpreting them. That would distract me from my noticing. And noticing without judgement or interpretation lets more data in.

At the same time, I am noticing what is going on with me. Do I feel safe? Am I drawn to touch them? If so, what is going on in me that I have that impulse? Is there something that they are doing consciously or unconsciously, verbally or non-verbally that is designed to elicit a certain response in me? How do I feel about this behaviour or ‘message’ I am experiencing?

It is quite possible and quite necessary that I can focus my ‘full attention’ on and being with the other person while completely being with my noticing. Mechanical science might tell us that this focus is not possible – my experience tells me otherwise.

I need to notice what I am feeling, thinking, doing, and experiencing while being completely present to the other person or group. This state is possible if we are totally present and participatory. It takes a lot of energy and it is worth every ounce of it for ourselves and for others.

We give, send, and receive volumes of information all the time. Most of us have trained ourselves and been trained not to notice these volumes. The volumes are overwhelming if we latch on to them and hold on. Otherwise they are retrievable awarenesses.

People are often a bit freaked out by what I ‘notice’.

Years ago I volunteered to train a group of black people in group process and sensitivity training. It was right at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement and nationally there was only one black person trained to do the work. I thought it was important for black people to have at least some black facilitators. I loved working with the group and we seemed to work well together. At one point, a delegation asked to meet with me.

“We think you are a witch!”, one of them blurted out. I was shocked! No one had ever accused me of that – well, except maybe my ex-husband!

As we processed the issue it seemed that they were a bit uneasy by how much I picked up that was unspoken or unnoticed in them by themselves.

I had been working as a psychotherapist for many years. It was my job to notice – everything – and I was good at it. Noticing is a necessary skill in working with people and groups.

Noticing, as well as whole-person listening, are necessary skills in living and working with ourselves and others.

Some even think I know more about them than they know about themselves. I don’t. I just notice more and listen with all of my being.

Just last week I had calls from two of my old friends. Both had been thinking about me a lot. Neither remembered that I was having my eighty-third birthday. Both had simply ‘noticed’ that I was on their minds. I hadn’t spoken with either for years. I had two wonderful conversations with two dear old friends because they noticed something in themselves and they acted on those ‘noticings’. Both experiences were healing for us both – and wonderful!

  • We need to notice when we are tired. Go rest.
  • We need to notice when we are hungry. Go eat.
  • We need to notice when something just isn’t right – and do something or ‘wait with’ our noticing until we are clear what we need to do.
  • We need to notice what is happening in our relationships and bring up our noticings – not accuse, not blame – just notice.
  • We need to notice what is happening in the world around us and see what we need to do.
  • We live in a culture that would prefer we did not notice some things and we need to notice.

A few years ago, I noticed that the ducks were flying north a long time before they should have been, and I felt concerned. Then I started thinking, “Oh, well, they will probably die. What can I do?’ And I noticed myself saying back to me, “You’d better do something soon because this is about climate change.”

Thank you ducks and thank you noticings. If we pay attention, our noticings can be our greatest gift. Noticing leads to participation. No-one ever healed or grew from numbing out.


Anne Wilson Schaef, PhD, DHL, is an internationally known speaker, consultant, seminar leader and author. She is the president of Wilson Schaef Associates and a New York Times bestselling author. There Will Be a Thousand Years of Peace and Prosperity and They Will Be Ushered in By The Women: The Essential Role of Women in Finding Personal and Planetary Solutions  is Schaef’s 17th published book. Schaef has also recently published a book called, Daily Reminders for Living a New Paradigm . She lives in Boulder, Montana.

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