August 17, 2023

The Art of Paying Attention: What Sappho’s Poetry Teaches Us

Sappho and Erinna in a garden (painting, Midjourney)

Stopping to smell the roses. Living in the moment. Being present. These familiar maxims speak to something many of us struggle with: the art of paying attention. In our distraction-filled world, concentrating intently on the present is increasingly rare. Yet the ancient Greek poet Sappho provides a model for mindful awareness and engagement with the fullness of our experiences. Through vivid images and emotional depth, her poetry reminds us to wake up to the present and notice life’s meaningful details.

Some say a host of horses, some say an army of infantry, and some say an army of ships is the most beautiful thing on the black earth. But I say it is whatever one loves.

Sappho’s work has endured over two and a half millennia because of her keen eye for specific sensations and moments. She notices the breeze rifling through poplar leaves, the soft hair on a beloved’s neck, and the flush spreading across someone’s face. Her images are crystalised in time, inviting readers into the scene as it unfolds. If you find yourself observing life from a distance, absorbed in your own thoughts rather than sensory experiences, Sappho has a way of calling you back to the present moment through her tangible descriptions. She teaches the value of presence—of fully engaging with your environment rather than merely passing through it on autopilot.

Eros shook my mind like wind falling on oaks down the mountain.

The emotional resonance of Sappho’s poetry also models a kind of attention that tunes into our inner world. She gives language to elusive yet universal human feelings—the agonies and ecstasies of love, the creeping devastation of jealousy, the sting of unrequited affection. Sappho’s willingness to plumb the depths of her emotional landscape and give raw voice to desire, heartache, and passion has always astounded me.

He seems to be equal to the gods, that man, whoever sits opposite you and listens to you speaking so sweetly and close to him, and hears too your tempting laughter. Truly makes the heart in my breast pound, and for when for a moment I look at you, I cannot speak at all; my tongue breaks, and a subtle flame runs immediately beneath my skin. My eyes see nothing at all and a roaring fills my eyes. Sweat pours down me, and shaking seizes me all, paler than grass I am, and little short of dead I seem to me. But all must be endured since…

Her courage to articulate intense and vulnerable experiences reminds me not to neglect my inner world. By paying attention to my feelings, I gain self-understanding and connect more authentically with others.

In addition to tuning into sensory details and emotions, Sappho’s work exemplifies present-moment awareness. Her poems immerse readers in precise scenes, lacking distant commentary. This absorbed presence in each unfolding moment—whether the radiance of dawn or the yearning for an absent lover—teaches us to be fully engaged with our experiences.

[Come] here to me from Crete to this holy temple, where is your charming grove of apple-trees, and altars smoking with frankincense, and in it cold water sounds through apple branches, and the whol land is shadowed by roses, and from shimmering leaves sleep drops down; in it a meadow grazed by horses blooms with spring flowers, and the wind blows gently.

Sappho eschews dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. Staying rooted in the here and now is what she encourages. She reminds us that when we pay attention, each moment carries its own riches, if only we open our eyes to receive them.

Beyond tuning into her own sensory awareness, Sappho’s attention and empathy extend to others. She intimately depicts the beloved’s face, expressions, and gestures. Her work explores the nuances of human relationships—the joys of reciprocated affection and the turmoil of unrequited love. This model of deep attention teaches us to understand others’ experiences and emotions instead of being trapped in our own narrow perspective. By empathising with others, we can forge connections and community.

Finally, Sappho’s linguistic mastery models the power of language when we truly pay attention. Her vivid use of imagery, skilled manipulation of poetic devices, and emotional resonance with readers across centuries highlight language’s beauty and force. Sappho teaches us that words deeply matter—to uplift and validate as easily as to wound. Reading Sappho’s exquisite poems reminds us to choose our words carefully and craft them as purposefully as she honed hers. Truly paying attention means being mindful of how you use language from moment to moment.

The hurried pace of everyday life often sweeps us into distraction and disengagement. But Sappho’s work returns us to the centre and grounds us in the art of presence. By paying attention to sensory details, our emotional landscape, the gifts of the present, the experiences of others, and the power of language, we can savour life’s meaning and beauty more fully. Through her enduring verses, Sappho still sings to us across time, calling us home to ourselves and to each other.

Here are three things you can do to improve your ability to pay attention:

  1. Practise mindfulness. Take time each day to tune into the present moment. Pay attention to sights, sounds, textures, tastes, and smells, as well as your thoughts and feelings. Meditation and mindful breathing exercises can strengthen focus.
  2. Minimise distractions: reduce multitasking and limit activities that divide your focus, like checking phones constantly. Create distraction-free zones to immerse yourself in meaningful activities. Turn off notifications and remove apps that hook your attention.
  3. Engage your senses. Notice details and appreciate sensory experiences. Touch, listen, and observe intently. Slow down and engage with your environment instead of rushing.

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