Since childhood I have been an avid reader. It seems to me now that back in those days I was able to give my attention to reading with much more abandon than is possible presently. I remember one day I was sitting in my fifth grade classroom. We had been given some free time which I devoted to diving further into the latest Cynthia Voigt book in my collection. I became so absorbed in the story that I didn’t notice for several minutes that the teacher had already begun the next lesson.
We are constantly navigating the inner and outer worlds. In our solitude, we can become absorbed in the story lines and plots introduced to us through books or engage in activities that connect us with our own creativity and imagination. We can pay more attention to our inner psyches and spirits and the inner landscape of our souls where we harbor our fears and stoke the flames of our hopes and dreams.
The outside world also calls for our attention. Often, this call is a lot louder than the call to turn our attention inward. As engaged participants in public life, we may feel called to turn our attention empathetically towards those suffering and to take actions that move the needle in the direction of justice, equity, sustainability, and peace. On a more day-to-day level, we may feel the demands on our attention from children, spouses, co-workers or supervisors. And, the many devices we are so often surrounded with also beg for our attention with the buzz and burst of notifications every few minutes.
Our attention, though, is a precious resource. I have found that spreading my attention too broadly can have detrimental consequences for myself and those around me. It is when I am able to direction my attention with intention that I find the most contentment and fulfillment.
Engaging in a daily spiritual practice has helped me to be more mindful of how I direct my attention (and when I allow my attention to go flying in many different directions). My practice includes lighting a candle, sitting for a few minutes of meditation, and allowing my attention to rest within or on my breath. I sometimes journal or engage in some body practices of yoga and stretching. It’s not too long after this that my attention is then called to the hustle and bustle of getting the day started. But, these few moments of intentional turning inward make a big difference.*
This month, may you allow yourself the space and freedom to direct your attention in the ways that bring you and those around you joy and meaning. May you treat your attention like the precious gift that it is.
*I hope you will consider joining me for an “Introduction to Spiritual Practice” session on Tuesday, November 12. Whether you are new to spiritual practice or not, this session will offer a framework for developing a practice from a Unitarian Universalist perspective and practical tools for deepening your practice.
November 2019 Spiritual Exercises: Attention
Option A: Notice With Mary Oliver
In her poem Gratitude, Mary Oliver asks herself and then answers eight questions of attention:
What did you notice?
What did you hear?
When did you admire?
What astonished you?
What would you like to see again?
What was most tender?
What was most wonderful?
What did you think was happening?
It’s a poem that treats the details of our days as a blessing and calls us to do the same. So for this month’s exercise, let’s accept her invitation:
First, take a few days and just spend some time with the poem.
Here it is for you to read: https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2013/11/27/poetry-gratitude-by-mary-oliver/
Here’s an arresting video of it being read aloud: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=65&v=1XKg514_K3s
Then use Oliver’s questions to write a version of your own by giving your own answers to her eight questions. Here’s an elegant example of someone making it their own: http://walkingintheholypresence.blogspot.com/2017/04/poem-gratitude-by-mary-oliver.html
But here’s the catch: You’ve got to decide how to gather the details for your poem. When reading Oliver’s poem, you get the feeling she wrote it at the end of a long day outdoors. But it could just as easily have been written at the end of a week, a year, or even a life. So you pick what calls to you. Maybe you take a 2-hour hike and then sit down and write it. Or maybe sit down and write it at the end of an ordinary day of work and family? You might even want to answer the questions as if they are asking about the past year of your life? Or the past few decades.
Think about sharing the poem with a close friend or your life partner. The point is to let Oliver’s eight questions help you remember that our attention is a way, maybe the best way, we say thanks for these precious days we’ve been given.
Option B: Join the Slow Art Movement
You’ve probably heard of the slow food movement. But how about the “slow art movement”? It arose from museums realizing that people were “seeing” their art but not really “looking” at it. For instance the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York discovered that people spent an average of only 17 seconds looking at their masterpiece artworks. 17 seconds! So now museums around the country organize special days where guests are asked to sit and view the art for 10, 20 even 30 minutes at a time, and then discuss what happened for them in that time of intensive and intentional looking.
This month you are invited to do the same. What a great excuse to invite a friend to your local museum! And if you don’t have a museum near you here’s a video with a bunch of options: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3DAESq9BGMc . Or maybe you want to do it with a piece of art in your house that you say you love but now rarely give your attention to.
Here are a handful of articles and videos to get you centered and inspired for this exercise.
- The Slow Art Movement: It’s More than Meets the Eye
- The Art of Slowing Down in a Museum
- Arden Reed: Slow Art in the Age of Instant Everything
- Slow Art Fast City
Option C: Notice Them
Let’s be honest, we sometimes ignore their need to be noticed. We’re talking, of course, about our loved ones. It’s never their big needs that we ignore. But on a daily basis, it’s all too easy to get…well…busy. Preoccupied. Wrapped up in work. Or worry.
We also know how big of a difference a little attention makes. You see it in your partner’s eyes when you take an extra 3 minutes and bring them coffee in bed before you rush out the door with your own mug. Your kid comes home all excited to tell you a story and you have the good sense to put the phone down and look right in their eyes as they spin their yarn. They light up right in front of you.
Yes, we’re tired. Yes, life is stressful. Yes, half-hearted attention is not sin. But this month take a week and fight it. Spend a week intentionally finding all the ways you can to give your full attention and full heart to someone near you.
Oh, and be sure to pay attention to the difference it makes for and to them, and the difference it makes to what goes on between you and them…