“The moment one gives close attention to any thing, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” – Henry Miller
If consciousness is a general awareness of self and world then attention is a beam of light: focused, directed consciousness.
In my directed attention I go out to the thing I am attending to. If I am listening I listen in a particular direction. If am smelling, I dampen down my other senses and go into the fragrance I am smelling. If you watch little children listening to a story you can almost see them leave their bodies and live into the story – they are pulled out of themselves and into the story. What is happening there, really? We pass out ourselves through our attention, traveling along the ‘line of sight’, the line of direction of my attention, to the thing I am attending to. I go where my attention goes.
But there is the other direction as well. The thing I am attending to comes into me. It travels along the line of attention into my own awareness, into my own being. How can I know this? One way is that anything that I have really paid attention to I remember. That is, I carry the impression this thing made upon me wherever I may go in life. It is in me in such a way that I can recall it vividly, almost as if I were having the original experience again. In every act of attending to something, someone, I go out and the other comes in. Attention is, in this manner, a doorway. I pass through my attention to the other. The other passes through my attention into me.
This is why the renewal of our religious life will be founded in a deepening of the practice of attention. This is because true religious life is not about doctrines, beliefs or moral codes. It is about a meeting, an encounter with a being greater than ourselves.
One striking signature to the communion service in The Christian Community is how it is set up to support deep attention. It is quiet when you walk in, and still. The space itself is clearly focused in one direction. We all face the altar – congregation and priests alike – towards a point of concentration around the image of the risen Christ on the wall and the golden chalice centered on top of the altar. The structure of the room, the layout of the chairs, the altar area, the stillness – all this provides clear guidance as to where the focus of the service is to be found.
But do our minds automatically follow this guidance?
We have this incredible capacity, if not tendencey, to separate our minds from our bodies: Just because our body faces a certain direction doesn’t mean our minds will. We could be in the future, going over our shopping list for after the service, we could be in the past, focused on some unresolved event or relationship. Or we could simply be reflecting on this or that theme. Growing up in the 80’s the ‘space age’ expressions were still common so that if someone were ‘off’ in their minds you would hear, “earth to Patrick” or “sorry, I was ‘spacing’ out.” Such expressions simply reveal the common wisdom that we know our minds can be completely out of the present moment, out of our bodies, so much so that we don’t even hear what someone may say to us. This is because we live – our self is most present – wherever our consciousness is. We are where our attention is. And it takes great effort to direct it, to give it.
When we realize this amazing fact we can begin to feel with greater awe and depth the significance of attention. In giving our attention to something or someone we are offering our consciousness, our very selves. The astounding result of such giving is what we receive: the other. Those who give their attention to what is HIghest, to the divine element of life, open a doorway for the divine Other to enter.
Patrick Kennedy is a priest in the Christian Community, a movement for religious renewal. Find out more here: http://www.thechristiancommunity.org