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Noticing the little things – pin and thrum attention

Earlier this year I set myself the objective of ‘seeking the big wins from paying better attention to smaller experiences’.  I notice that several months into 2024 and I have something of a mixed experience of doing this.  There are times when I am very good at it, both noticing the ‘little things’ and being aware of the ‘big wins’ I get from doing so.  There are other times where my combined commitments appear to cause me to move to ‘fast forward’ such that I get to where I need to be yet everything on the way is something of a blur.  I am wondering what it is that I need to do just to stay in ‘play’ mode and I am thinking that part of it is to recalibrate the phrase ‘smaller experiences’.  Perhaps in my mind this categorisation includes an implicit permission that they might be ignored.  The truth is that I just need to be better at noticing, at paying attention, irrespective of the scale of the experience.

All of this musing reminded me of something that I wrote about during the first COVID lockdown in a series that I called In Touch with Sense.  It is relevant to this time of year in that it invited, and now invites you to look a little closer at the beautiful primroses that decorate our roadsides, parks and woodland at this time of year.  It is also relevant to my being ever better at noticing, irrespective of the scale of the experience.  I reckon I’ll call it my pin and thrum approach.

First of all you will find what I wrote back at this time of year in 2020 (in blue)….you can almost feel the sense of lockdown in some of the phrases.  Looking back I am aware of the exceptional good fortune we had in being able to access nature during that time.

I don’t know about you but for us in Wiltshire the primroses are fantastic this year.  They seem more prolific, and the bunches seem denser with flowers.  Perhaps that is the way it seems every year!  During the daytime they raise the spirits with their capacity to capture the sun and reflect it back at you.  At night time they have a ghostly glow on the sloping garden outside our kitchen window.

While out for our daily walk we are noticing the primroses more, or is it that we are less inclined to take them for granted?  That’s an interesting phrase isn’t it:  taking things for granted.  Why is that we so often take for granted the information that our senses provide us?  It is entirely probably that the primrose display is no different from any other year. Perhaps the apparent change is more in about my capacity to see them?

A lovely oil painting we found in a charity shop capturing pin eyed primroses and that glow in the dark property that primroses seem to have. 

After all, our brains have a range of strategies for coping with the mass of information coming in from our senses.  One such filtering mechanism is how we unconsciously scan for difference or change in our environment.  If we sense a change we immediately process whether it might be a threat or a reward using our memories (and current context) as a reference point.  If we sense a threat we might well gear ourselves to ‘step away’, if a potential reward our intent will be to pursue it.  The vast majority of our sensory data falls in the ‘same as before’ category and we effectively ignore it.  In fact, take it for granted.  There is no question that this filtering mechanism is a great asset to our wellbeing in enabling us to cope with what would otherwise be sensory overload.  Yet it can also disconnect us from things that might have mattered to us at one point and which might well matter to us again.  Reconnection of our thinking and feeling with something we have unhelpfully taken for granted is a feature of many of the coaching conversations I have with my clients.

Back to the point – primroses!  Having sensed that they seem more abundant we paid them more attention.  Did you know wild type primroses came with two different arrangements of their stamens and stigma?  In one, the pin-eyed arrangement, the stigma alone shows in the gap at the centre of the flower with the stamens being hidden halfway down the tube below this gap.  The thrum eyed version has the stamens at the top edge and the stigma hidden within the tube.  Each bunch of primroses will be either pin or thrum eyed and have evolved this mechanism as cross pollination between the two types leads to a stronger daughter plant.  It will come as no surprise that it was Darwin who noted the difference.  I am left wondering if his amazing powers of observation and attention to detail are a particular form of mindfulness.  I am sure he would have been amused to see me prone amongst bunches of primroses in a mindful place of my own looking to spot both pin and thrum-eyed varieties.   I confess I was ridiculously pleased with myself when I found both!

This small experience has reminded me not to take things for granted.  To do so cuts off opportunities for learning.  In certain situations, perhaps not primrose related, it can also have profound effects on our behaviour and how comfortable  we are within ourselves, and in our relationships.  I will probably not remember the whys and wherefores of the pin- and thrum-eyed primrose but I will have a strong visual memory of how they looked.  In future years, in March and April, you may well see me in a mindful world of my own, closely inspecting a bank of primroses.  Not taking them for granted!


Coming back to the present day I am thoughtful about how effective I am at what I will call ‘pin and thrum attention’.  By this I mean paying absolute attention to somebody or something.  Typically, I start from the point of self-deprecation and identify as someone who is not very good at it!

The shortest of pauses pass before I realise that this is simply not true.  When coaching I am very, very good at pin and thrum attention in support of my coachees. Perhaps I don’t give myself credit for this as to some degree it is second nature in the moment of the coaching conversation.  I notice that the reflection I do after a coaching session is another example of my being good at this!

Perhaps where I find it harder is outside of my coaching work and reflective practice.  I know that I do find showing pin and thrum attention during everyday conversation quite difficult sometimes.  It’s no real surprise given that doing so is exhausting as senses and processing powers are all on high alert!

I noticed it playing out looking around the National Gallery and Tate Britain recently too (on separate days, you can get too much of a good thing after all!).  I really enjoyed immersing myself in the paintings and sculptures although I was aware of needing to give myself permission to do so.  By that I mean I had to choose to switch off attention to all that was going on around me.  The sense of the passage of time.  The awareness of the galleries not yet explored.  The jostling of the crowds and the attention, or lack of it, they were giving the art.  The pin and thrum attention arising once these distractions where discounted seemed to open me to possibilities.  It was an exciting feeling, and quite noticeably different from the experience of engaging with the art from a place of only partial engagement.

My musing brings me to the conclusion that I am quite good at pin and thrum attention.  I apply it at work and in my appreciation of the creativity of others.  There are situations where I am less good at it.  There are times when I feel exhausted because of it.  That I notice both these things is part and parcel of managing levels of attention, as it’s not possible to keep it up all the time.  What is important is knowing the characteristics of the ‘on’ and ‘off’ states of pin and thrum attention, as well as knowing what is needed to move to the ‘on’ state, while marshalling the resources that support me in doing so.  Here are some enquires you might be interested in reflecting on, prompted by paying attention to primroses.


  • What is that is going on in your life that would benefit from your paying it pin and thrum attention and what might happen if you managed to do so?

  • What influences whether or not you give your pin and thrum attention to what is going on around you?  How might you become better at it?

  • Which of your day to day activities might you use to exercise and grow your capability of paying pin and thrum attention?


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