Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of November 28, 2016

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All-In Presence versus Scattered Absence

(The Challenge of Presence 4)

We all have the ability to focus our attention, perhaps our most important capacity. Yet we generally do not see it as important. Like the proverbial fish in water, we do not usually notice our attention itself. It seems nebulous, a behind-the-scenes facilitator, part of the furniture. When we need it, it appears effortlessly, that is unless that need is prolonged. In that case, we may notice our attention or lack of it, notice its limitations, its tendency to wander if left to its own or to vanish altogether.

Let's look a little deeper. We think of attention as an it, as something we have, like a car that we steer. But the reality is much more intimate and perhaps surprising. I am my attention. You are your attention. Attention is our will, is who and what we are. Many of us spend years looking for ourselves. We need look no further than our attention, for it embodies us, encapsulates us. Attention is not something we have; it is what we are. When our attention is strong, we are strong. When our attention is steady, we are steady. When our attention is weak, scattered, or non-existent, so are we. To be ourselves in any given moment, we need only be our attention. To be more ourselves, we need only gather our resources to be robustly in our thereby strengthened attention.

And of course, attention is the core of presence. Without attention, without us, there is no presence. That makes the difference between presence and absence. So the effort to be more robustly present is the effort to be fully in our attention, to stand with the whole of ourselves as our attention. To the extent we stay here, in and as our attention, we do not become scattered; we stay unified and present.

The countervailing force is the easy and unintentional leaking away and dispersal of attention. From being in a state of unified attention, we lose focus, either because we tire or because some distraction intervenes. Soon enough we are slipping into a state where we are half riding some thought-train, half pretending to be engaged in whatever our body is doing, and half worried about something that might happen. That is being scattered. This kind of unintentional, half-aware mode of being could be euphemistically called multi-tasking, whereas it is in reality a disorganized mode of pseudo-tasking, of unconnected mental processes. Little of real value gets done or experienced. But it is easy to fall into, even from a state of centered presence.

This is not to say that random trains of thought are a problem. Indeed, if they are loosely pointed toward some question, issue, or concern, random thoughts can generate creative solutions. And they will be with us all our lives. The vast majority of our random thoughts, though, are not pointed toward to some question and do not result in anything creative. They just serve some necessary mental function, like our breathing and heartbeat serve our body. But random thoughts do not disturb robust presence, they recede to the background while we stay here in the foreground of our being.

To stay in presence then requires a strong focus, an all-in approach to living in this moment, to being here, in our attention, now. It is not a matter of holding ourselves together to prevent the scattering of our parts. Like herding cats, that would fail. Instead we set up such a strong field of attention that it attracts and entrains all our disparate capacities into our unified presence. Here I am, doing what I am doing.

For this week, notice the tendency to slip into distractions, into being scattered. Contrast that with all-in presence, where you jump into yourself with both feet, where you are here fully and now. Practice rising out of being scattered, out of being absent and into presence. Inevitably, we soon fall back into being scattered, so we practice rising up again and again.


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