Inner  Frontier
Cultivating Spiritual Presence

 

Inner Work


For the week of July 12, 2010

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Scattered Attention

(The Way of Attention: Part 1 of 9)

In any given moment our attention defines us. What we attend to is what we perceive. And the sum of our perceptions is our life, in this and in every moment. So our attention determines our life, simply and directly. This holds even more so for our inner life. If our attention takes in a particular thought or emotion, notices it, then the effect of that thought or emotion can be much different than if it goes unnoticed, unattended. Attention steers our awareness, when we so choose. Attention and choice are intimately connected, with each act of attention being a choice. And both are aspects of our will, of who we really are. The use of the word “I” rings truest when we say “I pay attention” or “I choose.”

Because it is the most fundamental and invaluable tool for our spiritual practice, we will study attention and how to develop it, in a 9-part series on the Way of Attention:

    1. Scattered Attention
    2. Passive Attention
    3. Directed Attention
    4. Focused Attention
    5. Broad Attention
    6. Receptive Attention
    7. Participation
    8. The Root of Attention
    9. The Source of Attention

We begin with noticing what our attention does as it is now, how it flits around, drawn by everything, how scattered it is in our ordinary condition. Like the distracting ding from our computer announcing a new email, or like the ringtone of our phone, each new thought, each new sound, each new sight takes us. Perhaps only momentarily, but there it is nevertheless, soon to be followed by yet another diversion. Our experience in this state of scattered attention is a long series of detours. Even when we are, for the most part, focused on something, say some task, we still fall prey to intermittent distractions. We fidget, scratch an itch, or follow some stray, irrelevant thought or an impulse to move on to the next thing before finishing the current one. Every such intrusion finds a willing and distractible partner in us, a scattered partner.

How scattered we are varies; there are degrees. The more frequently we fall into distraction and the longer we stay distracted, the more scattered we are. Notice though, that this assumes that we have something to be distracted from. But we do at times fall into aimless states where we are completely unmoored, buffeted about in the stream of experience, without even a tenuous hold on some activity, task, interest, or direction. At such times we are totally scattered. Every successive thing takes us zigzagging among the waves and currents of experience.

This is not a deficit of attention, but rather a failure to make use of, to control our attention. Scattered attention is like a live wire on the loose: always looking for something to connect with. And connect it does, with an endless series of inner and outer objects of attention. This unregulated nature of scattered attention shows both the problem and a path toward resolution. The first step consists in seeing whether and to what degree there is a problem, whether our attention needs improvement.

So for this week, notice your attention. Notice how stable it is. Does it stay engaged in one place or does it flit here and there? Or both? Notice how often you are in the flitting, scattered state of inattention. Notice, in your most focused states, whether your attention escapes intermittently. Is your attention elsewhere or are you doing what you are doing?


        

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