Dan Keusal, M.S., LMFT

Jungian Psychotherapy for Individuals & Couples

"Find Your Purpose, Heal Your Pain, Live With Passion"
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Summer 2024 edition: 
"Attention To Small Things" 

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To listen to an audio recording of this essay, read by the author, click here.


After an unusually long time between newsletters, I return with something…small. “Attention To Small Things” reflects on how the little things in life—in the natural world, in the written word, in promptings from the unconscious, and more—can have a big impact. At a time when many of us feel a bit overwhelmed by the larger, impersonal forces around us, the act of consistently paying attention and responding to the smaller things within arm’s reach can leave us feeling that we are players rather than just being played, that we are participants rather than passive victims; it can leave us feeling empowered. May your own attention connect you with the treasures that cross your path every day.

Take good care.


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Reflections: “Attention To Small Things"    

Sitting at my desk one morning, I first heard, and then saw, a bee buzzing near a bush just outside my open window. Allison Luterman’s poem “Invisible Work” came to mind:

I thought of the invisible work that stitches up the world day and night, / the slow, unglamorous work of healing, / the way worms in the garden / tunnel ceaselessly so the earth can breathe / and bees ransack this world into being…

A single honeybee—such a small thing—can pollinate 5,000 flowers in a day; a single colony of honeybees can pollinate 300 million flowers in a day. I’m reminded of what my friend John, who for years ran a highly successful consulting firm, once told me: “Small things, done consistently over time, yield big results.” 

That bee got me to thinking about the value, about the impact, of other small things.

Many years ago, I began the habit of putting light pencil checks* in the margins of books as I read—to mark memorable quotes, or intriguing ideas, or just beautifully written passages (I also place small dots in the margins to denote words whose meaning I am unsure of and want to look up in the dictionary). Over time, I’ve come to realize how the small act of placing those thousands and thousands of pencil checks have helped anchor in my mind, in my very being, the passages they mark—almost as if I, like the bees, am “pollinating” something that will later bear fruit. 

Many is the time I’ve had one of those quotes or ideas come back to mind, at which point I’ve pulled a book from the shelf and gone looking through the pencil checks on that volume’s pages, until I find the words that once seized my imagination. Often, I wind up putting those words to use elsewhere—reflecting on them in the context of my personal growth, integrating them into a piece of my own writing, or calling on them to offer a client validation or guidance during a session. 

Another way that attention to small things can help clients is in the course of interpreting their dreams. In his classic book Inner Work: Using Dreams And Active Imagination For Personal Growth, Jungian Analyst Robert Johnson has a section titled “Following Small Clues,” which begins:

“In every mystery, there is always a tiny clue, noticed only by the most observant, that leads to the solution. This literary ploy actually reflects an archetypal pattern in life, and in dreams: every dream provides us with some small detail, some small clue, that tells us which interpretation to follow, or how to take the dream” (p. 91).

Johnson gives the example of a man who had been offered a job “that sounded wonderful. He would start out as a full partner in the firm, would have challenging work, boundless opportunities.” While he was considering whether or not to accept the offer, he had a dream “that a beautiful woman in a seductive evening gown walked toward him and let him let him know that she was his for the asking. He decided to go with her, but then she drew close, and he looked into her eyes. Her eyes were a strange, otherworldly shade of green that made him queasy and frightened him. He backed off.” 

Together, Johnson and this man came to see the “strange, otherworldly shade of green” of this woman’s eyes as one of these “small clues,” as some kind of warning (that these green eyes left the dreamer feeling queasy was, perhaps, another clue). The man turned down the job—following the dream’s clue “he backed off”—and later found out “that the firm was dishonest, and he realized he could not have survived there.” Both the job offer and the woman seemed to be “wonderful” (job offer) and “beautiful” (dream woman), but attention to small details showed deeper, crucially important dynamics at work.

This dream serves, by the way, as an excellent example of a key concept in Jungian dream interpretation: dreams are often not about…what they are about. They are meant to be taken not literally, but symbolically. This dream proved to be not about this man’s relationships or his sexuality, but about his career path.

Nicholas de Malabranche once wrote “Attention is the natural prayer of the soul.” Honeybees, pencil checks in the margins, and following small clues in dreams are but three examples of this kind of “prayer,” of how attention to small things, sustained over time, can have a big impact in our lives, deepening our connection to soul.

(*In her warm, gently humorous essay “Never Do That To A Book,” Anne Fadiman notes that there are two ways to love books—“courtly” love, and “carnal” love. For those who love books in carnal fashion, acts like highlighting, turning down page corners, or leaving a book open on a table, its spine creased or cracked, are fair game—simply ways of showing their love. I love my books in decidedly courtly fashion, taking care not to bend a spine, not to damage a page by turning down a corner, and never, ever desecrating a page with highlighter or pen. I show my love for the book and its notable passages only by marking them with light check marks in the margins, and those only in pencil. A friend once borrowed a book of mine and when he learned that I had owned the book for more than 20 years and had read it three times, he was astonished, exclaiming “This could be sold today as a new book!”). 

Resources For A Life Of Depth And Meaning:

(photo): "Adventure Ahead" One day, at the entrance to a trail that I walk regularly, I encountered something new: on an old tree stump (out of which new branches had begun to grow), someone had placed an orange sign reading "Adventure Ahead." I took it as a reminder: even in familiar places we have gone many times before (or with familiar people, or jobs, or...) you never know what adventures may, indeed, lie ahead. (Click on the photo to download a copy for your own enjoyment).

Dan Keusal, M.S., LMFT, Psychotherapist. (206) 523-1340. Email: dankeusal@dankeusal.com