Are We Really Paying Attention?
Many of us like to think we are good listeners, or at least are becoming better listeners.
We know how to listen well when we are having a conversation with someone else. Maintaining eye contact, without staring, demonstrates we are paying attention. We are not checking our phone or watching something else. Good listeners do not merely think about what they are going to say next while someone else is talking.
Our minds and our hearts are engaged in being open to the person to whom we are listening. We are paying attention to our conversation and have not already moved on to the next subject.
Even when we know the rules of listening well, are we really paying attention?
If it is a challenge for us to listen to another person, how can we even begin to listen to sacred stillness?
We live in a world where it is increasingly challenging to pay attention and listen well. Our brains are constantly inundated with information which demands our attention, even when we do not realize it. Images and music flood our imaginations.
It is as if we are training ourselves not to pay attention and not to listen.
The irony is one of the things we value the most is when someone listens to us. Being listened to is one of the most affirming experiences we can have.
Some of us follow contemplative practices, in part, to help ourselves be open and attentive. We listen to sacred stillness and practice paying attention.
Practicing contemplative prayer and listening helps me become a better listener. Listening to sacred stillness also teaches us how to pay attention to ourselves and other people.
Paying attention allows us to connect with our true selves, other people, and the world around us in new ways.
Are There Limits to Paying Attention?
I can be a fairly focused person.
Focus is one of the traits personality tests usually identify as one of my strengths. I tend to be good at following directions, taking specific steps in a specified order to get a desired result.
Some people think I have a version of Attention Surplus Disorder.
The ability to pay attention can be a valuable gift. I have learned a lot and done well in school and at work by paying attention. Paying attention has shaped the way I relate to people. When I care about something, I take it seriously and focus my attention on it.
There is more to life than paying attention. I am coming to see the gift of relaxing my focus.
I am beginning to recognize that focus can be a weakness as well as a strength. For me, being focused means concentrating on something specific. Relaxing my focus can open the door to consider things I had been ignoring or hiding. I often focus on what I can understand or control. Relaxing my focus helps me with paying attention to less familiar ideas.
Focus tends to be about accomplishing tasks. Relaxing my focus is often more about paying attention to new possibilities.I can go through my days focused on the tasks I see as important, or urgent, or even crucial. We have our lists of things to do, our goals and objectives, our plan. Relaxing our focus can help us with paying attention to a wider variety of people, ideas, and feelings.
As we learn to pay attention in new ways we become more open and better listeners.
Paying attention can help us become less rigidly focused. Listening to sacred stillness teaches us to pay unfocused attention.
Paying Attention Well
When I first started a practice of listening to sacred stillness I was particularly focused. Convinced I was trying to hear the voice of God, my mind raced through the stillness. Was that it? Wait, no, did I hear it over there? Where can I listen for it next?
The focus which helped me in school had become an obstacle to paying attention well. My focus needed to relax and give me an opportunity to listen without pinpoint accuracy.
Listening to sacred stillness is about paying attention and being open. We are not trying to get a fix on a specific voice or sound. Paying attention well to sacred stillness depends more on our openness and receptivity than our focus.
We are paying attention when we listen to sacred stillness. It is not about sorting things out or sifting through competing voices to find the good stuff. Paying attention well is not how we control or master the stillness within us or around us.
It is our intention to slow down and listen to stillness. It sounds like a ridiculous, impossible task.
We take time to breathe deeply, close our eyes, and pay attention well.
How We Practice Paying Attention
It takes us time to pay attention well. We cannot begin listening well, but need to grow into our practice.
Many of us are so accustomed to ignoring the flood of noise in our everyday lives we do not pay attention. We defend ourselves from the barrage of sound and have lost our ability to be attentive.
There is no switch we can flip to start listening to sacred stillness attentively. We need to grow our way back into listening and paying attention the way we did as children.
Some of us practice listening to sacred stillness twice each day. We may practice on our own or with other people.
There are times when our practice feels particularly frustrating. It may feel like we are battling against a flood of distractions. Sometimes sacred stillness can be an impenetrable wall for us.
We practice being open and receptive without struggling against ourselves. Our practice is about paying attention to sacred stillness and not our thoughts, words, or feelings.
Listening to sacred stillness is a practice of being open to spiritual truths within us and all around us.
When will we practice paying attention today?
How will paying attention shape what we experience this week?
[Image by gobanshee1]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual life mentor and coach in Southern California. He is a recovering attorney and a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s website is StrategicMonk.com, and his email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.