May I back track? Or start over? At least may I change my verbs?
Attention is given anyway: attention is giving of itself always. It is not a question of something we choose to do, some act undertaken with hopefully salvational consequences. Rather, it is a condition of what we are. We can’t not give attention. Try it and see.
This matters in the subtle sense that if we making giving attention a goal, a thing we have to do in order to be awakened or enlightened or unified with the Absolute or whatever, then we have slipped into the old pattern of God-at-a-distance and Oneness-in-the-future. We are bringing time and space into it, which is to bring effort into it, which is to bring doing into it.
And nothing needs doing, and what is done must be undone, sooner or later. Tara Singh knew and called on those who listened to become responsible unto it.
There is another world – a world of peace, a world of holiness. That is our dwelling place. The still mind knows nothing of this world that’s divided and lives by the dog-eat-dog approach. You are at peace and discover your needs are met. Nobody gave you teeth, but as a child teeth appeared. No system could have given you eyelashes. What was needed was provided. And you become part of that Intelligence, part of that action of Life (How to Learn from A Course in Miracles 84).
I mean all this in a practical way. If I idolize “giving attention,” then I will start having thoughts like: “I should give attention to this and not that.” Or “I am not doing a good job of giving attention this morning.” Or “so-and-so is better than I am at giving attention.”
I will turn it into a system, and any system made by human intelligence can never know wholeness. It can only fragment. Giving attention would become an accomplishment attributed to – or denied to – me, to Sean. It becomes exclusive to the personal self. In terms of A Course in Miracles, it becomes egoic, a dead end, a stale circle, infertile and uncreative, perpetuating scarcity.
And all the while, attention just goes on. Life just goes on. This is what amazes me about it; this is what I cannot get enough of. It is trippier than acid, lovelier than rainbows and more ecstatic than sex. Attention is always there. It is always responsive. It is always being attentive. It doesn’t sleep. It doesn’t slow down or speed up. It asks nothing in return. It just is.
Therefore, I am shifting gears a little in how I think and write about this. Rather than “giving” attention I am simply noticing attention. It is a small but repercussive shift. It is a practical shift, and I want to say two things about it.
First, noticing attention is not better than not noticing it because attention is always giving itself any way. It is not conditional on anything we do or don’t do. It is no more or less efficacious when we notice it then when we don’t. So there is no virtue in noticing it. In a very real sense, nobody gets any credit for attention. We can’t become competitive with it, we can’t hoard it, we can’t “get it,” we can’t keep others out of it.
So I am noticing the giving of attention but I am also not investing in or attaching to this noticing or giving, because it’s giving of itself anyway. When I strip down to swim in the river I don’t have to keep saying “I’m in water” – the river is there regardless of whether I notice it or not. This takes the pressure off; this makes it all not so much a spiritual practice as something gentler and more relaxed, like just going for a walk after dinner, or reading some fiction before bed.
An analogy might be the chickadees with whom I am in an admittedly strange but not unhelpful open marriage. Like attention, they are always there regardless of whether I am presently noticing them. I am baking bread or reading a difficult essay or playing with children and I am noticing that, not the chickadees. They are outside my attention, sometimes entirely! But when I turn to them – when I go to the feeder or into the forest – there they are. They are still chickadees; I am still in love with them. And they seem to love me back, in their sweet and chatty chickadee way. They don’t try to please me – nor I them – because our love is a given, maybe the given.
So attention is like that, in its way. I don’t feel any need to be the best chickadee seer, or the most important. I am just grateful they’re there, and I am happy when I notice them, and happy knowing they are there without regard to any effort or doing on my part. You can be in the marriage too and it doesn’t mean there’s fewer chickadees or less love. Attention is; and is enough, which I know intimately when I get out of its way which is to say, when I stop trying to be its point of origin or sole beneficiary.
The second thing I want to say – gently, gently! – is that when I am noticing attention, the self is there. It is almost entirely effaced but still exerts a tremendous tidal pull. It is a funny thing to say that but it’s true. In the morning on my walks and post-walk meditation and study and writing, there is a sense of a self that is holy and sacred and pure and true. It is very subtle, but it’s there, and its thereness is quite powerful in an almost seductive way.
If I am honest – and why not be at this point – that is the self I like best: that is the self to which I aspire, buttress in writing, and project through the secret wedding of lust and intellect. But, of course, there is no such thing as a better self or a wiser self or a sexier self or any self at all that is more desirable with respect to other selves or versions of self. Preferentialism within multiplicty is a big lie, no matter how much fancy spiritual window dressing we deck it out in.
So I have to see the way in which that morning self – the prayerful self, that thin-to-the-point-of-disappearing self is the same self that is everywhere else. It, too, must be undone – must be give up to be undone. Empty hands means that we hold onto nothing – not even the self that wants to go with empty hands unto its God.
In fact, that self (which is merely an idea, albeit a persistent and desirable one) is especially thorny because it is very convinced that it is the solution, not the problem. It is very sure that its diligence and discernment is the only and holiest way to go. The ego dons the rags of a penitent, makes soup in a poor hut to feed to passersby, and sings cracked alleluias at twilight and dawn but it is still the same old ego keeping the same old separation up and running. We have to get better at seeing beyond the surface, beyond the form.
Oddly – and interestingly – that self is not especially present when I am just drifting through the day, doing this and that, thinking this and that, being not particularly attentive to what is going on. When I am teaching or telling my kids stories or making some over-the-top garlic dressing or remembering old motel rooms or dreaming of unwritten texts, there is no overarching (or undergirding) sense of spiritual self-satisfaction. Attention just is; nothing special or not-special about it. It just is, and I just am within it.
I want to avoid falling into the trap of believing that noticing attention is better than not noticing attention. They are like the same dogwood tree, just seen in the different lights that attend morning and dusk. Anything else is just the ego using the language of A Course in Miracles (or whatever spiritual path or tradition to which you incline) to keep undoing at bay.
“Notice” comes from the Latin “Notus.” It refers always to what is already known or learned or understood. In that sense, to notice is not to see anything anew but rather to acknowledge an ongoing familiarity with whatever is. To “notice” attention is simply to be – passively, inactively – in a relationship that already is and that doesn’t need to be recreated or reshaped or redefined. You can’t not be in it.
What I am trying to do here is remove activity from this seeing/giving/noticing/whatever altogether. I am trying to say it is a processless process, if that makes any sense. I am trying to say that everything that could possibly need doing is already done. Whatever we call it needs to serve the fact that it is already done and our job (our play?) is simply to see this as a fact. That seeing is enough: that seeing is what undoes what needs undoing.
In a sense, whether we say giving attention or noticing attention, the end result is the same. The truth is that we are already are that which we long to be, are already gazing lovingly and unflinchingly into the Face of God. Only deepening and clarification remain. We broached the peace that surpasses understanding (and thus wordiness) as a kind of singularity: a horizon that, once crossed, undoes us altogether, and does not allow for any return. And why should it when it only exists that we might learn there is nowhere to go and nothing to do and no body to do it?