Paying Attention Like a Monk
Focus is one of my strengths. Concentrating is not generally difficult for me. Some people describe me as having “attention surplus disorder.”
An ability to focus and pay attention can give us significant benefits. While I do not have the best eye for detail, paying attention helped me do well in school and practice law. My skill in concentrating was important in remembering facts and dealing with witnesses. We tend to rely on our abilities to pay attention as we analyze and think our way through questions.
Focusing is not perfect. It tends to see specific components or pieces and not necessarily the big picture. We often focus as we analyze and not recognize how paying attention helps us spend time in reflection.
Concentrating on solving a specific problem can be a way to distract ourselves from something else.
Contemplative life and spirituality have helped me grow beyond the limitations of my focused attention. When I was becoming a spiritual life mentor, I needed to learn how not to cross-examine5 people.
The Power of Attention
When I am more focused I become less aware of things going on around me. My mind, my eyes become fixated on what I am doing. Whether I am reading, watching a video, or wrapped up in my thoughts, I lose touch with other things.
Monastic life has helped teach me how to pay attention in new ways.
We tend to feel we can deal fairly well with matters on the surface of life. Making decisions about what to eat, where we want to go, and other tasks is not so difficult. These are the questions to which we pay attention in our everyday lives. We are thinking about one thing when someone asks us about something else. Life teaches us to become adept at moving back and forth along the surface.
It is easy to function without really being aware beneath the surface. Our bodies develop memories of their own and we follow the patterns of our habits. We may be able to drive to a familiar place without really paying attention to each turn. Expected patterns of behavior wrap themselves around us, welcoming us.
The monks who inspire me use the power of habits to remind themselves to be aware.
Monastic schedules are organized around particular reminders. Each day includes set times for reflection, for prayer, for work, for rest. The hours are designed to remind monks to be aware, to pay attention.
The ways monastic days are organized are not arbitrary. Each day, with awareness and intention, reminds people to go below the surface. Even time spent on manual labor is intended to draw monks deeper.
Monastic life is based in not being distracted by the surface of things.
Each task, each interaction, each meal, each thought is a reflection of something deeper. There is more to life than its surface and monks are committed to exploring its depth. Their commitment grows out of an awareness that many of us skim along life’s surface.
It is not because the monks I know are more cosmic, more spiritual, or more ethereal. They take practical steps to develop awareness and pay attention beneath the surface.
The communities in which they live and work encourage them to remember. Despite their own distractions, members of monastic communities organize their lives to foster awareness.
For one thing, their days flow from time spent with others to time spent alone. They build time for reflection and for praying into their schedules. Recognizing the centrality of awareness to their lives, they make it a clear priority.
In addition to developing their own awareness, monks help develop awareness in others. They serve as examples to inspire people, and as reminders of the power of awareness.
It is one thing to live in a community which develops and encourages us to be aware. What about the rest of us who apparently live in a society determined to distract us?
There are steps we can take to strengthen awareness in our everyday lives.
We can follow the example of monks and find people to help us. Communities of people and regular, scheduled conversations remind us to live in awareness, paying attention. We can include time in our own schedules for reflection, for rest, and other awareness practices.
There are people who take regular walks to give themselves time to remember. Some people find specific visual cues, including art, to help them practice awareness. I even know people who choose to listen to specific music or podcasts as they commute.
Many people find practicing stillness, even for short periods of time, helps them get beneath the surface. It is helpful for some to practice taking deep breaths, and listen to their own breathing.
Some find a specific place, even sitting in a particular chair, helps them practice awareness. Others are encouraged by keeping the same time every day, like monks.
Challenges are part of practicing awareness. People experience obstacles and challenges whenever they practice.
For some our expectations of what will happen become obstacles to awareness. It is not really the nature of awareness to meet our expectations. We are much more likely to encounter something more than we hope to receive.
Other people are concerned about the return they will receive on their investment. They would like a guarantee the time they spend will gain awareness for them. We do not earn awareness by practicing, though it helps us discover new ways of paying attention.
Some people have a fear of practicing awareness. There are those who are afraid to fail and those who are afraid to succeed. They may fear what new awareness will do to them, or they will not be able to do it.
The only way we can find out for sure what will happen is to try practicing, perhaps with some help.
How can we begin paying attention like a monk this week?
When will we pay attention like a monk today?
[Image by Will Clayton]
Greg Richardson is a spiritual director in Southern California. He is a recovering assistant district attorney and associate university professor, and is a lay Oblate with New Camaldoli Hermitage near Big Sur, California. Greg’s email address is StrategicMonk@gmail.com.