Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice

 

Inner Work


For the week of January 18, 2021


Focused Attention Practice

(Reclaiming Our Life: 2)

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When we pay attention to something, our will controls the conscious energy, bringing it to bear on the object of our attention. Because we are our will and because our will derives from the Sacred, the practice of paying attention, of focused attention, is inherently a spiritual practice, regardless of what we are paying attention to. Paying attention strengthens our will, because attention is, at its core, will. Strengthening our will reinforces our potential connection with the Sacred, though that connection depends not only on strength, but also on purity. And because focused attention depends on and uses our inner energies, it is also a spiritual practice in the sense of energy transformations.

The quality of our attention defines us and determines the quality of our life. When our attention is scattered, unable to sustain focus, then we are scattered, and our experience and actions tend to be disjointed. We can use the criterion of focused attention as one way to assess the value of some of our activities. For example, any social or entertainment medium that shortens our attention span, does us a deep disservice. Because they make their profits off our attention, they are constructed to attract us to the next item before we lose interest in the current one.

Attention is a measure of our development as a human being, particularly the duration and quality of our attention. To what degree are we able to stay focused on something, to stay engaged with something, moment to moment? Long form living means diving deeper into life and being there for more of it. Furthermore, attention is our basic tool for spiritual inner work, as many forms of meditation, prayer, and inner exercises depend almost entirely on the duration and quality of our attention.

How can we enhance our capacity for sustained attention? There are as many ways as there are potential objects for our attention. Our jobs and chores, for example, generally require us to pay attention, sometimes in a sustained and careful manner. Participation in the arts, such as painting, writing, dance, or making music requires sustained and careful attention. Reading and listening so that we get what is being communicated require sustained and careful attention. Participation in sports and games requires sustained and careful attention. Spiritual practices such as yoga, Tai Chi, Qi Gong, and many types of meditation and prayer require sustained and careful attention. All of these develop our attention, develop our humanity. In any activity that requires attention, we can intentionally bring even more attention to what we are doing, so that we are more there, doing what we are doing.

Here is one meditation method aimed at developing attention, among other benefits. It consists of paying attention to the physical sensations associated with breathing, in particular the sensations of the breath at the upper lip and nostrils. While paying attention to those sensations, we also inwardly count our breaths from one to ten, and then start again at one. The primary focus of attention is on the sensations, while the counting goes on in the background of our mind. We aim to focus all our attention at the upper lip and nostrils. We do not intentionally change our manner of breathing. We just let our body breathe itself normally, while we sense the process and remain relaxed. The counting follows the breath, not the other way around. When we find that our attention has strayed off our breath, even for a moment, we come back to the breath and begin the counting again at one. If we find ourselves counting eleven, twelve, thirteen, we know we have lost the exercise and again begin at one. When we can get through several sets of ten breaths without a break in our attention, we can drop the counting and just be with the breath or drop the attention to the breath altogether and just be.

Notice how different this is from passively allowing your attention and your mind either to wander aimlessly or to be pushed and pulled by electronic media. Notice its effect on your thoughts. Are they just as strong as they were, or have they slowed down and subsided?

For this week, please reclaim your attention, and thus more of your life, by practicing sustained and careful attention.


     

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