We are, as human beings, capable of choosing what we grace with our attention. Yet in our increasingly distractable world, our attention can be kidnapped and carried away by something before we have noticed its absence. Half an hour after coming onto the internet to check our email, we catch ourselves absorbed in one of those clickbait pieces on a news site involving political or celebrity gossip. I just noticed how strongly I was engaged with a piece of this kind until I realised ‘Hmm, I don’t actually want to be here. This is not where I choose to place my attention.’
Emotionally, I was intrigued, caught up and then observed I felt a bit, well, grubby. So I turned my attention, a little reluctantly, back to what I intended and I felt a little cleaner, a sense of relief at extracting myself. We get LOTS of opportunities to do this. What do we buy? Read? Watch? Who do I socialise with? Does it feel healthy? I frequently bail out of books and I’m getting better at switching off something that has caught my attention when I don’t wish to be there.
This is important human work, growing better at observing our distraction and redirecting attention. I first learned about attention as a meditative practice in my 20s when I investigated Zen Buddhism. Then I was privileged to have Hungarian Georg Kühlewind as a guest teacher when, in my 30s, I began to study the work of Rudolf Steiner. Trained as a chemist, this small and humble man had a gentle heart united with a deft mind. Kühlewind led us in simple exercises. We paid attention to a stone, a paper clip, a verse of sacred poetry. We watched our errant minds skip and sway from our intended objects and brought them back without judgment, or at least, we tried. It’s extraordinary how far we can travel in loose associations before we notice we have strayed. He urged us to set up a regular practice, citing people he knew who had meditated on a paper clip as part of their spiritual practice each day for decades, exploring the shape, the function, the way it is constructed and manufactured, imagining it all.
As well as focusing our errant minds, this sort of task helps our congested souls as well. To cultivate attention, to distinguish between the inner and the outer, to be able to witness what is going on in our lives helps us discern when we are engaged in reactive emotions, negative thoughts, and unhelpful behaviours.We begin to grow aware of what serves us. We learn to distill the deep longings buried in the emotions, the longings that are stifled when we neglect our inner life.
To choose to engage creatively with our purposes and our challenges, to work out what needs healing in our lives requires the capacity to grant our attention. Not perfectly, the rule of wabi sabi applies here too, as I frequently have to remind myself. I’m far from perfect after decades of practice, but I know that the attempt is important. I often remind myself of Pema Chodron’s words. ‘We meditate (or in this case practice attention exercises) not to become good meditators but to become good human beings.’
Becoming more capable of attending has all kinds of benefits. We become better listeners. We grow wiser at discerning when to relinquish and when to strengthen relationships, work plans and strategies. We get better at observing when we are caught up in unhelpful reactivity and less likely to berate ourselves.
So, how can we grow more attentive?
Strengthening attention can be as simple and as challenging as focusing on a pebble you have collected from the garden, or a simple created object like a spoon or a needle from around the house. Seated in a comfortable position, with spine upright, you cultivate a space of wonder and welcome. A few breaths help you disconnect from other thoughts. Then focus your attention on the pebble or the other object, try to recall its image as precisely as possible without grasping it, but allowing your attention to create it. Do this for a few minutes, just bringing back your attention whenever it strays. Then release the image, let yourself feel emptiness. Finally cast your attention widely and receptively before bringing the meditation to an end. Five minutes of such practice daily can help.
We can also do this kind of activity with sounds such as Arthur Zajonc’s four part bell meditation.
Memorising poems and verses also helps us. We can use a line or two, or even a whole poem as the subject for our contemplation.
As we go for a walk, we can spend a few minutes particularly observing the trees, the flowers, the architecture of the buildings, whatever it is we choose. Not for the whole walk, just a few moments of conscious attending.
Doing the dishes, hand writing a list, eating dinner or any other task can become an opportunity to pay greater attention. Just for the first minute or two, we can shift our attention to the way we are forming the letters, the spiral of bubbles created by the water in the detergent, the taste of our meal. Again just for a few minutes, then we can relax and let ourselves attend less rigorously.
I’m a bit zealous about this topic partly because I know I’m not that great at it, that my distractable mind is always eager to be off over there somewhere and it calls back to me, ‘Come on, the next thing is waiting for you. Don’t stay there like an idiot. This over here is urgent! C’mon!’ I am learning to resist these urges.
I also know that cultivating attention is an important part of healing work, of supporting the complexity of our soul lives from a foundation of attention. Sometimes we call this mindfulness, but it involves our hearts and our sense of purpose as well. With attention, we can observe deeply, not just the surface layer of our current problem or latest dilemma. With our hearts and minds united and our intention turned towards whatever needs to be examined with the care that is required, then we allow the deepest story emerge, the most rounded picture to present itself to us, and from this perspective, we can discern what needs to be enacted and lived through, what’s calling us from the future.
In his class, Georg Kuhlewind reminded us that our attention is our love. He admitted a practice of attending to his wife in slightly different ways each day. I wonder what subtlety and nuance he brought to that activity beyond the frustration and difficulty that each relationship, each situation merits in our individualised times. I imagine one day a small gift of helping with a household chore, maybe on another day he simply observed her lined hand holding a cup of coffee, perhaps he offered a gesture of affection or a look of encouragement. I can picture a sense of love radiating from those small pools of attention. When we offer our attention, whatever we attend to, whatever we love is freed to transform and grow.
Distraction image by underminingme. I found the longings image found through a friend of a friend’s facebook profile and she didn’t know the original.