Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of July 19, 2010

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Passive Attention

(The Way of Attention: Part 2 of 9)

In contrast to the scattered condition, where our attention hops erratically among the various objects presenting themselves to our awareness, in the passive state our attention stays more or less put, captivated by whatís in front of us. We just let ourselves, our mind and feelings, be played by the spectacle, without bothering to stay alert to it. This is passive attention: focused, perhaps, but only by default, not intentionally directed. We are absent, having fallen headlong into that one thing that attracts us now.

Imagine sitting in a lecture on some complex subject. You are stuck there with no escape. But rather than make the inner effort to carefully follow each sentence, each concept, their meanings and how they fit with the overall theme of the presentation, you just sit there hearing the lecture but not really taking it in. You hear without listening and see without noticing. Later, you may not remember anything said by the lecturer. This is passive attention.

In such cases, your attention may be taken by your thoughts and daydreams, your emotional reactions, your boredom, which screen you not only from the outer event, but from yourself. Being absorbed in your thoughts and reactions does not mean you are in contact with yourself, only with a superficial layer. Buried under that, out of touch, lies the one who sees, chooses, and acts.

Passive attention only yields absence, no presence. In this state, no one is at home to experience our life, to receive our sensory impressions, our thoughts and emotions, and to choose our actions and responses. Instead, it all comes in and gets processed by the automatic mechanisms of our habits and propensities, our conditioning and personality. Passively, we are only half alive.

You absent-mindedly enter a room in your home and donít know why. You know that a mere moment before, you had a reason for going to that room, but now that you are there, you cannot recall it. Passive attention brought you here.

You find yourself driving in a particular direction, by habit. Then you remember where you are going and realize that you are driving in the wrong direction. Passive attention brought you here.

You are watching television, though you know you have other things you need to do. Yet you sit there in a half-daze, mesmerized, zombified, procrastinating. Passive attention holds you here.

Contrast all that with a different approach to a concert or play, movie or TV. Again you let yourself, your mind and feelings, be played by the spectacle. But not just. Perhaps your emotions engage and you become fascinated. So you stay alert, you send your attention out, as it were, to meet the event halfway. You are there with it, drinking it in. This attention is not passive, but rather receptive and maybe in part active.

A period of passivity may leave you feeling drained, empty, and somehow cheated. A receptive period is more likely to leave you feeling relaxed and refreshed. But mitigating factors can arise. If you have been working hard and find yourself physically and/or mentally depleted, then a period of passivity, such as zoning out in front of the TV, may be just what you need to recoup your energies. The problem comes when passivity changes from a need to an indulgence. When needed, passivity regenerates. When indulged, passivity enervates.

One constructive role that passive attention plays in spiritual practice and meditation is in relaxation. Attention needs energy. At times, the depletion of our inner energies precludes a more active attention. Passivity allows our energies to settle and combine, an important and beneficial action. Further than that, in meditation the do-nothing approach of passive attention can gradually transform into the non-doing of receptive attention. You may be sitting, doing nothing, just letting go into relaxation. Perhaps a deep fatigue wells up and you feel bone-tired and nearly asleep. Yet if you stick with it, the fog of fatigue may slowly evaporate, your awareness collects and regenerates, and you become alert and awake, effortlessly.

For this week, notice the ways and situations in which your attention is passive. Notice how this feels inwardly and its results.


     

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