Attention without Goals

One way to think about giving attention is to see it as essentially permissive or even passive – it does not seek to change the object which is being attended (which may include attention itself). Attention has no goal outside its own expression or existence.

A great deal of our psychic energy, especially in our western religious and intellectual traditions (the generative nexus where A Course in Miracles dwells), focuses on changing the objects in our attention through healing, improvement, modification, amendment, substitution and so forth.

For most of my life, the predominant culture has emphasized “wellness,” “self-help,” and the dawning of a “new age” in which holiness, inner peace and joy prevail.

In that setting (and in the setting of anticipating that setting), is it natural to focus on what is not working – what makes us unhappy – and then actively work to transition to happiness. In that setting, not striving for spiritual betterment et cetera is incoherent.

For example, say that I am frustrated with how much prep work I have to do for the summer class I teach. I’d rather be planting in the garden, re-fencing the horse pasture, fixing the back stairs, gazing at violets, sitting with my feet in the river . . .

A traditional approach to that dilemma would be to try and change the frustration to acceptance – to go from being unhappy to happy – and to do so by specifically interacting with the frustration. We “deal” with the external circumstances.

On that view, perhaps I meditate on the reasons to be grateful for teaching – the student/teacher relationships, the income, the insights into specific writing and critical thinking challenges and how to respond to them, the opportunity to practice compassion and clarification . . .

Or maybe I bargain, because compromise is spiritual. I will do half the requisite prep for classes, and work in the garden but wait a few days to re-fence the pasture.

Or maybe I reframe the issue altogether. Why complain about teaching when some people don’t have clean water or safe homes? I mean, Jesus was literally tortured and executed and he didn’t whine. Have some perspective Sean!

Giving attention is an alternative to all that. I don’t say those approaches are wrong; they are certainly consistent with my experience over the years. But giving attention is different.

When I give attention to frustration I just let the frustration be what it is. It is like welcoming a nagging guest into my home. When I give attention, I don’t try to cut the visit short, or limit the number of rooms they can see, or curtail the dialogue. I just notice the visit, attend to it, and keep on attending and noticing until it is over.

Noticing is a form of being curious: I just want to see what this experience is. What does it feel like? What does it seem to want? Why do I want from it?

I became fluent in the language of “letting go,” “letting be” and “just breathe” and all of that around age twenty-two. That was when my confused Catholicism and early forays into psychotherapy met the Buddha and I began a relatively brief and half-assed (but intense and influential) study and practice of Zen.

But even in that setting – for which I remain grateful, tendrils of which yet bloom in my living – my “letting go,” “letting be,” and “just breathe” were subtly conditional. I’ll let go and let be and just breathe because doing so will cause negativity to evaporate, leaving only joy and inner peace.

In that way, self-improvement, betterment, willfulness and so forth all remained active ideals, active motivations. An underlying sense of needing to achieve a state other than the one I was presently in remained pervasive.

And it went on being pervasive through my thirties and forties. Through a much more serious and relatively mature engagement with Catholicism and psychotherapy, and finally through A Course in Miracles which for the better part of a decade supplanted psychotherapy and Catholicism and functioned as the whole of my practice.

It is important to remember that better/self-improvement/etc is okay; the impulse occurs in everyone, to varying degrees. We have the structure of human beings. That means that we have an inherent tendency to notice and solve problems. And, given our opposable thumbs and gift for language and so forth, we have become almost unimaginably good at problem-solving. Heart transplants, walking on the moon, representative democracy, food cooperatives, toilet paper . . . How grateful I am!

And yet, the ostensibly simple problem of being able to sit quietly without stress or anxiety, and to let others sit that way as well, appears practically insurmountable. Just being happy, content, at ease, alone and with others . . .

This became painfully and viscerally obvious to me in the past couple of years, as all my learning and thinking and study and sincerity failed to transform the underlying mechanism of “notice what’s wrong, identify a fix, apply the fix, evaluate the fix, notice what’s still wrong, identify a fix, apply the fix . . .”

Was there any way off that conveyor belt going nowhere?

I began to think of giving attention as a sort of spiritual practice coexisting with my practice of A Course in Miracles at some point in 2015. I realized then that a particularly vexing relationship did not exist unless I looked at it, and in that moment, became utterly fascinated with how attention worked.

What did it mean that fear and guilt could literally disappear? Where did it go? Why did it come back? Was attention responsive? Biological? What was the difference between attention and awareness? Why can’t attention give attention to itself? Or can it? Are there a priori reasons that a source/cause should appear or not appear to its effect?

These questions led to some very complex thinkers and fields of research, a lot of which I can only pretend to understand. Yet that study truly shifted the way I interacted with the world and with others sharing that world (broadly defined to include people, black bears, sunflowers, stars, et cetera). I went slower, with more patience and humility.

But it wasn’t until the past year or so that I began to realize “giving attention” was akin to what other folks were calling “meditation” or “mindfulness practice” or “contemplative prayer”.

In that tradition, “giving attention” is liberating, just because it frees me from the ongoing cycle of self-improvement, which always see-saws from “things are great!” to “things need work.” I become willing at last to see in a clear and fructive way my utter ranklessness (the premise of our shared equality) and the futility and lovelessness of believing it is possible to have something that others do not (which is the underlying premise of self-improvement – it is very hard to see this clearly but it’s there to be seen).

When I no longer needed to change anything, when I was truly willing to just let it be what it was, and attend to it on those terms, rather than my own, living settled in a very deep and loving way.

You could imagine the shift somewhat like someone who stumbles on an old guitar and plays around with it, learning some rudimentary chords and melodies. But then one day someone more expert shows her how to tune the guitar. And suddenly, everything she was doing has a new flavor. It coheres in a delightful, integral and harmonious way.

The essence of giving attention – or mindfulness or meditation, if you like – is simply intentional nonresistance. What is this experience? What does this breath feel like? What does that bird sound like? *Where does it sound? What does the zafu feel like on my ass? Who is this “me” asserting possession of that ass? Et cetera.

It is an ongoing noticing what is happening – what this experience is – without rushing to do anything about it, which includes defining it, explaining it, translating it, et cetera.

I tend to prefer an academic approach to the world. I am happiest with books, second happiest writing, and third happiest talking about what I’m reading and writing. That’s okay!

But it is also profoundly powerful to simply spend some time noticing all that without needing to engage with it. A lot of what arises doesn’t require engagement; and when engagement does happen, it is enriched and nourished by the calm of having been still and attentive, by engaging on terms other than those that “I” assert.

Of course, one could argue that “giving attention” is a form of engagement; I wouldn’t disagree. Yet I might reframe it: “giving attention” is a form of being in gentle relationship with what gives attention, a soft mutuality that is less active than contemplative and more present than provactive, proactive, et cetera.

In any case, a generative inner peace obtains – not merely our personal feeling of at-ease, but an ease that offers itself to a world that receives it, as if confirming – and conforming to – a blessing.

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  1. Thanks, Sean. This is helpful. I often feel, when I read your stuff, that I get a taste of something, a flavor that I almost recognize. Then I need to savor it like a candy — or a homeopathic remedy under my tongue — and something like the tuning of that old guitar starts to take place. Thanks again. I appreciate your words!

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