Attention is gold, a commodity of priceless value. For it is via attention that we come to know reality, to sense what we deeply are. That “knowing” is not of the mind. It is more truly of the body and heart, something felt in the engagement with the moment. It is in the blessed space of attention that aliveness is sensed.
Unlike most precious commodities, attention is not in short supply. Nor does it have to be obtained: it’s part of what a person is, an essential component of conscious human awareness. What makes it precious is that it’s of the now – fleeting, easy to miss. In fact, almost always missed. It cannot be held on to. But – lucky us! – momentary attention is ever-renewing, ceaselessly refreshing. The opportunity to notice it, to sink into it, is born anew each moment we live.
If only we will hold still! If only a person will notice, hold still and be self-aware enough to detect the living presence of attention. It asks but an instant of tuning in, of seeing and feeling the momentary inner reality. It isn’t important whether the interior feels pleasant or is full of pain. Attention is what attunes to whatever is there. Doing this does not require going away on a retreat, or sitting for a long period of meditation. A thousand times in the course of an ordinary day this holding still could happen. If only its value will be recognized.
Attention is ever-renewing. The opportunity to notice it is born anew each moment we live.
If only holding still will be allowed.
If only attention will be granted its place of honor in our human endowment.
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Attention is always engaged. Seldom, though, is there sufficient self-awareness to notice where attention presently is. Mostly it’s drawn someplace without conscious noticing. A great portion of our days, its focus is the thought stream of the moment – as if mental content were reality. As if it were worthy of attention. As a consequence, immediate reality (within and without) is only distantly attuned to. Life itself plays second fiddle to the compelling inner “reality” of the mind’s babble. And when it comes time to die, a person feels as though life has been missed.
Indeed it has.
There is the enduring illusion that what makes life worthwhile is its “content” – what happens, what we make of it. There’s the steady focus on solving problems, on realizing dreams – as if achieving these will finally “do it.” Yet it’s attending the now that makes life truly lived – worth more than any achievement.
Life is not the picture or story in the head, as recollected or longed for. (The ego chafes mightily at this.) Life is – only – this moment. For only the now can be directly experienced, inhabited, tasted. The truth of this can be seen . . . if only you will look.
Nor are “you” the person you appear to be, inventing and carrying all the ideas about life. You are attention itself, real – and sensed – in the present moment. Only.
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At the urging of the restless, striving ego, there’s often an attempt to put attention on more than one thing at once. The misguided effort to multi-task is a squandering of our most precious inner resource. In fact, close observation shows it’s not possible to deeply attend more than one thing at a time. But the strain to do it, and the illusion that it’s possible (never mind a good thing), takes a severe toll on a person’s sense of aliveness and well-being. You’re never really there for any of it. You’re not living, not really.
When you become aware of having been “lost in thought,” you can observe that there wasn’t a moment when you made the deliberate choice to engage attention with the mental story. It “just happened,” which tells so much about the power of thought to trick us into its seeming reality. But here’s what to focus on: when you become conscious enough to notice this has been happening in the last few (or many) moments, realize it’s attention that’s seen this! It’s attention that can see that what’s happening is thinking. This is very much apart from being lost in the thoughts themselves. It is, in fact, a rich perspective to look from.
Rather than lamenting about the power of the mind and the ego to seduce you away from reality, instead allow yourself to dwell in the sensation of this momentary conscious awareness – to feel the living sensation of attention, as it notices that thought has been happening, as it detects what the movement of thought feels like in the body. Allow yourself to see the toll it’s taking. And notice too how from this perspective, the content of the thoughts has often faded, no longer so compelling. The attention itself feels more real than the story.
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Any time you notice what attention is “doing,” and you notice what it feels like to attend, you’ve entered instructive terrain. (Don’t expect it to feel blissful. Just very alive.)
One way you can attune to attention is to pause and ask, “What’s the sensation in my body just now?” Allow yourself to sink into whatever that feeling is. Then ask, “What is it that can detect this?” Each time you become consciously self-aware, invite yourself to notice this: “Where has my attention been just now?” Then this: “What does attention feel like?” And this: “Where does attention ‘live’ in me?”
There is a knowing that is not of the mind. The mind’s job is to create and maintain a sense of self. It’s incapable of encountering reality. What “part” of you is able to be with the now, without processing it?
Attention does not equal thinking. It’s entirely still, without agenda or belief. It is the primary – the initial – engagement with the moment. The unfiltered detection of reality occurs first (however seldom this is noticed). Only a split second later does the mind step in with naming, judging, processing. The mind (serving the invented self) puts what you deeply are at a remove from life itself. Rest from the paralyzing belief that you need to somehow stop the mental part from happening. It’s plenty to simply – via attention – observe it. And to notice that attention occurred before.
Discover the space between being-with and mentally engaging. (It’s very peaceful there.)
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Everything conveyed via language of necessity relies on mind-made words. Teachers may use words other than “attention” in this kind of exploration. It’s important not to get caught up making fine distinctions with terminology (attention, consciousness, awareness, presence), since that keeps the mind engaged. Reading this writing asks the mind to engage, at least initially, to enter into the ideas. But the only usefulness of any writing lies in its potential to point you beyond itself – beyond what the mind has access to.
This is why the effort to remember what some spiritual teacher has said is a trap, because it simply keeps the mind engaged, sustaining the illusion that anything of ultimate value can happen in the head, or that it can be clung to. If what someone has said rings the bell of authenticity, don’t strain to remember the words. Just listen to the bell! Feel it in your body. You already have access to the truth. The only “problem” is that you don’t recognize it.
There is such a thing as attention attuned only (or primarily) to itself, without a particular “focus” on anything at all. This has been called “consciousness without an object.” There’s a generalized sense of spaciousness, with all that is occurring “within” it either unnoticed or noticed equally, in a background sort of way. This spacious awareness may or may not occur. Best to not think of it as a goal. But you may notice it happening sometime. There may or may not be a sense of “you” having briefly dissolved. There may or may not later be recall of it.
It’s by becoming more deeply attuned to your living attention, in the now, that you come to recognize what’s always been there. If you notice yourself believing you must understand or attain something to become spiritually realized, please see that this is a thought.
Then notice what is doing that seeing.
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To discover the difference between attention and thinking is a door opening. Sinking into attention is not an attainment. It is as ordinary and familiar as breathing.
But is it precious? Is it miraculous? There must be a reason we use the expression “pay” attention. For at last coming to really experience aliveness is more valuable by far than gold. Deeply, it’s what we’ve really wanted all along.