Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of November 2, 2009

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Stabilizing Attention

(Aspect 9 of 12 of the Path of Right Living)

Of all the facets of spirituality, one of the most important is the development of our will. And the most accessible way to understand and strengthen our will consists in developing our power of attention. As we well know, the ability to focus and sustain our attention provides major benefits in our education, career, and throughout our daily life. But attention plays a crucial role in our inner work as well. All inwardly active forms of spiritual practice depend on attention.

Attention comes closer to who we really are than anything else in our ordinary inner world. We can truthfully say: I am my attention. Why is this so? Consider how active attention works in you. First you choose where to direct it and then you bring your attention, your self, into contact with the chosen object. This initiative is an act of will, an action in which your will interacts with your inner energies, in which your I, the one in you who chooses, brings your awareness energies to bear on the object. Next you hold your attention on the chosen object. This is a sustained act of will, a continuing choice to attend to something. Finally, when your attention choice lapses and you notice that your attention has strayed, you choose to direct your attention back to the object, and the cycle begins again. Throughout, attention is an act of will: your action, your choice, you. Your attention comes from you, as you, and intimately reflects who you are in this moment. Is anything closer to you than your attention? Where does your attention come from, if not from you? What is your attention, if not an embodiment of your will?

Our usual state, though, is one of passive attention, wherein we unintentionally allow our attention to wander onto whatever may attract us in any given moment. We do so by default, without choosing, and without particular awareness of how our attention is drawn or moves. We exercise little or no will in such a passive state. Our attention is scattered; we are scattered. Active attention, by contrast, is an act of will that requires us to initiate the action, monitor ourselves, notice where our attention is, and intentionally direct it moment by moment.

Any activity that requires active attention, including certain forms of meditation and prayer, develops this power in us. Take for example the attention a batter brings to the baseball flying toward him at ninety plus miles per hour, or the focus of a surgeon in a delicate operation, or you as you read, drive, converse, or engage in the myriad activities that demand your attention.

Because of its centrality in the spiritual path, we seek ways to collect and stabilize our attention, ways not to be scattered. When we practice sensitive presence, we are aware of our body, emotions, and thoughts. We bring our attention to these three areas of experience. Doing so persistently gradually forms in us what we can experience as an inner body, a sensation body inside our physical body. Attention plays a major role in this. We pay attention to our body, to our emotions, and to our thoughts. We inhabit our inner world, our inner body, by attending to it, by our attention keeping our awareness present here and now. By actively putting our attention into our whole body, into the sensation of our whole body, we inhabit our inner body. We are here because our attention is here. Our inner body in return offers a natural and appropriate venue in which to stabilize our attention. We keep our self here by keeping our attention based in our inner body. We practice this in sitting meditation and also as we go about our day.

In the latter mode, we widen the embrace of our attention to include both our inner body and the outward experience and activity engaging us at the moment. Our inner body serves as our home in the midst of activity. Time marches on, we go here and there, do this and that, and our sensory experience changes continuously. Through it all, our inner body offers a base of stability. True enough, our experience of our inner body also changes, but not as radically as everything else. So we can be here in our body, while also in our world. Rooting our attention in our body, while keeping open to our outer experience and engagement, carries us in presence through our day, and offers the possibility of a stable attention, a stable presence.

A key aspect of developing this inner stability is to notice and embrace the disrupting and distracting influences that weaken our focus, that lull us into passivity, into letting our attention stray haphazardly. Certainly there are times for that: in creative work, in recreation and relaxation, and in some forms of meditation and prayer. But ordinarily we want to stay here and now, based in our inner body. But our many disorganizing factors work against this. We consider these disrupting, distracting, dissipating, entropic factors as part of us and learn to work with them and around them. Our active choice to pay attention meets our passivity, while we stay in the middle to reconcile and unite the two within our being. And in that unity we find a way to stay present, to inhabit our inner body. Our attitude is not totally active nor totally passive, but both and more. Just in that way, we are.

For this week, practice stabilizing your attention.


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