Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of August 29, 2011

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Living with Attention

(Living in Presence: Aspect 3 of 7)

Attention connects with the core of who we are. One can truthfully say: I am my attention. Closer to us than our body, our emotions, or our thoughts, closer even than our sensation or our consciousness, attention is our reality. When we pay attention, we put ourselves right in the middle of the action; as our attention, we focus our cognitive energies, our mind on the object of our attention. Who is focusing? We are. One aspect of will is attention. If we are anything, we are our will. And so we are our attention.

Attention always acts in the present moment; indeed, it defines the present moment. More attention means more presence. Less attention means less presence. No attention means a barren spirit, a flat and fleeting experience that does not enter our memory, a piece of our life, a piece of our precious time that may as well not have happened, for we were not there, we were not anywhere.

We distinguish between active and passive attention. When our attention is drawn by an object, without the need of our continuing intention to keep it there, then we are in a state of passive attention. Examples include watching television or a movie or some spectacle, noticing an attractive person or some object we desire, daydreaming, or any other situation that pulls our attention toward it without any intentional inward action on our part.

Active attention occurs when we choose to pay attention to something or someone, and keep on choosing to hold our attention there. Despite the many distractions of stray thoughts and other sensory impressions, we focus on the chosen object of attention. We can listen to the lecture, we can follow and participate in the conversation, we can keep our eyes on the road when we drive, and so on. The power to do such things is the power of active attention.

There is a third form, receptive attention, which comes into play in listening to people, to nature, or to music, and in deep meditation or prayer. In this, we direct our attention without focusing so tightly and at the same time we open ourselves to the object of our receptivity.

Attention is the essential and versatile tool at the center of all we do. Honing our attention pays continuing dividends both for our outer life and for our inner search. How do we improve our attention? We work primarily on improving our active attention, our ability to focus our awareness and stay focused. The broad pantheon of spiritual practices offers many methods for exercising attention. The practice of sensing is one such method, wherein we focus and hold our attention in our body, in contact with the sensitive energy in our body. In some forms of meditation, we focus our attention on our breath. In one form of mindfulness practice, we keep our attention on whatever sensory impression is at the forefront of our awareness in any given moment. In some forms of prayer, we may focus our attention on the words of the prayer, on the melody of the prayer, on adopting the appropriate emotional stance, or on the One to Whom we pray.

One effective exercise for developing attention is to hold our attention on the breath at our nostrils, to keep attention on the sensations of breath flowing in and out of our nostrils. To help prevent our thoughts from distracting us, we engage them by counting breaths, one count for each exhalation. We count 1 to 10 and then begin again at 1. If we lose the count, we begin again at 1. But the primary focus of attention remains with the breath at the tip of our nose, while we keep the count in the background. Because the focus is so narrowly circumscribed, our attention rapidly strengthens in this form of meditative exercise. We can treat this as a fine preparation for meditation, simply beginning a session of meditation with this exercise, and then dropping the exercise once our attention has fully settled on the breath at the nostrils. We then move on to our chosen meditation practice.

In some ways an even more useful exercise of attention entails holding our attention in contact with our body, as a sitting meditation practice. If you have worked on sensing, as described for example in the previous aspect of this inner work series on Living in Presence, then you have enhanced your facility for intentional body awareness. In this exercise of attention, we intensify that practice of sensing by holding our attention in a part, or preferably the whole, of our body. We stay with it and by our intention we strengthen that ongoing contact for the duration. When we notice that our attention has strayed into thoughts or anything else, we bring it back to our body and reinvigorate our immediate, visceral, ongoing, intentional contact. This builds both our being and our will.

Another excellent exercise of attention is to keep our attention in contact with our bodily sensations as we walk, i.e., to sense our body while walking in the ordinary way. This intentional body sense leads toward presence in the midst of action.

For this week, please practice developing your attention. Whatever the current quality of our attention, we can profitably exercise it further.


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