The history of human progress is the history of human noticing.
This is true in all fields, but in particular, compassion begins with noticing. The more we notice in our world - the more deeply we observe it - the more we end up caring about it. Noticing is a precursor to caring. Noticing that someone might be struggling, or noticing that someone was affected by something you said or did. It’s the noticing that leads to change. When the objective of the change is to alleviate suffering - your own or someone else's - you approach a state of "enlightenment", literally the lifting of the burden of suffering. So, perhaps the path to enlightenment begins with expanding one’s capacity to notice.
Noticing doesn’t have to be a passive experience. I believe you can cultivate a habit of noticing. Notice actively. Practicing some form of art is a good way to become a better noticer. So is practicing science. So is mastering a recipe. So is telling a story. So is listening to a story. So is anything in which attention to detail improves the experience. The key is to find something in life that you care about enough that you will not tire in your attention. When you find whatever that is, do as much of it as you can.
The thing for me is horses. One of the things I've noticed about horses during my near-constant observation of them, is that horses are excellent noticers. Horses notice everything. Being good at noticing is essential for their survival. They are vulnerable prey animals who evolved to live in extreme environments under constant threat of predation. Their senses are fully deployed at all times and far exceed the perceptive powers of our own.
One cold day last winter, Maven absolutely lost his mind as I approached him in the pasture. He was high-headed and snorting, with nostrils flared and eyes wide. His posture was that of a tightly coiled spring, his muscles quivering in preparation to flee as he lightly pranced back and forth, looking at me like I was from outer space. Why would he act this way? It was so uncharacteristic; he normally greets me with a casual friendliness, like I'm his roommate coming home. I spoke to him as I approached, and the sound of my voice reassured him so that when I extended my hand in greeting, he craned his neck toward me to smell it. At that moment, I realized what the trouble was: I had pulled my hands up into my coat sleeves, and it must have appeared to him that my hands were missing. Once I showed him that my hands were still right there at the end of my arms, right where they have always been, and right where they are supposed to be, he calmed right down and became his typical curious self as I demonstrated how my hands could go inside or outside of my sleeves.
Horses are the masters of noticing. If you assign yourself the project of trying to notice everything that your horse notices, your noticing skills will improve immediately. If you don't have a horse to try this with, try it with a person, or any sentient being. Notice the things that they notice. By placing your attention on the experience of someone else, you will begin to notice more and more things about the world around you. Then you'll care more about the world around you, and when you begin to take action toward things you care about, you will make the world better.
Like Maven does.
Here is a small series of pictures of Maven noticing things.