Attending to the Now

Attending to the Now May 22, 2015

      Three times deosil, in the morning of the world,
      I circle within my encroaching thoughts.
      At last a place of peace –
      I reach the silent centre.
         -Vivianne Crowley (1993)

We are transitioning in the solar cycle from Taurus to Gemini, poised between the sensory Taurean experience of the world through the physical senses and Gemini’s mind and intellect. The presiding deity of Venus, associated with physical love and sensory pleasure, gives way to Mercury, a deity of communication, quick-thinking, new ideas and innovation. Standing poised between two different influences can be difficult – it is simpler to go with one or the other, but Pagans would not be Pagans if we did not like doing difficult things.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Experiencing the World Around Us

Our senses are like finely calibrated instruments that are bombarded by input from the outside world. To function we must set them in a way that does not overwhelm us and we must create space in the psyche to concentrate on the tasks of everyday life. But contemporary life teaches us to prioritize what we focus on and too often those priorities are wrong. We focus on trivialities – the less important, the less relevant – and this can distort our view of the world around us. This could sound like a purely physiological issue or one to do with psychological health. Having a distorted focus, looking at the world as though through a smeared and distorted lens, does affect our health on many levels. Just as important however is the effect on our spiritual health.

Finding One-Pointedness

My thought as we enter Gemini, that most thinking of signs, is that not engaging our sensory apparatus in an optimal way affects our Paganism. In order to appreciate the interconnected universe in which we live, we need to take time to stop being ‘in the head’ with our thoughts and emotions fragmented, swirling, competing and busy. We spend most of the day trying to do multiple tasks.

We think while driving, while cooking, while putting children to bed. We are constantly doing one thing, while trying to think about all the other things that compete for our attention. One time when we are probably fully present is when we are doing ritual, where we engage in embodied acts of veneration of deities or of magick, the science and art of transforming one state of existence into another. All our attention and senses are focused on that act of worship or transformation and we become for a time ‘one-pointed’, the competing thoughts, emotions and sensations that usually swirl though our psyches are unified in single focused actions.

Awareness of Now
   Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose,
   in the present moment, and non-judgmentally
(Kabat-Zinn 1994, 4).

There is a great deal of discussion at present about Buddhist-derived mindfulness techniques and their benefits. Neuroscience shows us that mindfulness changes our brain physiology and hence our future experience of the world. Around 20 minutes a day spent in focused mindful awareness changes our perception of the world and allows us as it were to see again with fresh insight, the insights of a child who is newly discovering existence. This brain ‘Yoga’ enhances our well-being and allows us to appreciate better the world we inhabit. But we do not need to turn to Buddhism to find it.

The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (he who was played by Richard Harris in Ridley Scott’s movie ‘Gladiator’) was a Pagan philosopher, as well as a general and an emperor. He dictated his philosophic works at night in his tent while on military campaign. He was not a mystic and could not be said to be other than engaged with his world. He advocated dealing with that world by focused attention, and for those who love threefold law, this was his threefold rule of life:

Objective judgment, now, at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now, at this very moment.
Willing acceptance – now, at this very moment – of all external events.
That is all you need.
   -Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), Meditations, 9.6 (Stephens 2012, 115)

Acceptance is Not Acquiescence

Acceptance does not mean that we have given up our ambitions to change the world around us. The driving motivation for many of us who come to Paganism is to change if not the whole world, then at least ourselves. Our spiritual traditions emphasize change – the changing seasonal cycle and the changing phases of the moon. To understand better what we want to change however we need to see clearly, without the distortion of our hopes, fears, thoughts, and anxieties. We need as it were to cleanse the lens of the senses so we can experience with clarity the world around us. It is rather like wine tasters sipping a fine wine. They look at its colors, they smell before tasting, they allow the liquid to move around the mouth to experience the ‘notes’ of the taste. We can learn to notice more and to appreciate more of what is around us if we take short breaks in our day, even just once a day, to be totally present in the moment.

Sensory Awareness of Everyday Life

This is a simple exercise that we can do unobtrusively at home or at work to centre, focus and connect with the world around us. It is particularly helpful if you tend to get caught up in work, so you spend hours sitting in positions that are bad for your back, or if you drift off into fantasy or negative thought patterns. It involves sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. Don’t worry if one of your senses doesn’t work. Just use the ones you have.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Five Things Exercise

1. First, take 5 slow, deep breaths in and out. Push your abdomen muscles out to draw air into your lungs and draw the muscles in to expel air again in a slow, steady rhythm.

2. Focus on the breath for another 5 breaths: notice the sensations of cool air flowing into your nostrils and down into your lungs and the warmed air flowing out of your body. Notice your rib cage rising and falling, the slight movement of your shoulders, the expansion and contraction of your abdomen.

3. Take another 5 deep, slow, deliberate breaths.

4. Seeing: Now take notice of what is around you, starting with what you can see: notice 5 things that you can see.

5. Take another 5 deep, slow, deliberate breaths, noticing the flow of air in and out of your body.

6. Hearing: Listen carefully to the sounds around you and inside you: notice five things that you can hear.

7. Touch: Notice 5 things that you can feel– your feet on the ground, thighs on the chair, rings on your fingers, for example.

8. Again, take 5 deep, slow, deliberate breaths, noticing the flow of air in and out of your body.

9. Smell and taste: Notice 5 things that you can smell or taste. Notice how the different tastes in different parts of your mouth and tongue.

10. Take 5 more breaths and with your mind refocused, go on to the next task of the day.

References

Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 1994.

Stephens, William O. Marcus Aurelius: A Guide For the Perplexed. London: Continuum, 2012.


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