Paying with our Attention, Part One

At some point in life most of us learn that you have to pay for what you want, and that you don’t always get what you paid for. And since we tend to think in terms of cash flow, we calculate how much we can afford. In other words, we give things a subjective valuation.

But now let’s suppose what we want most is something money can’t buy. Is it peace? Or love? Happiness? Illumination? These are some of our possible major spiritual wantings. So let’s ask ourselves, how much am I prepared to pay in time and energy for my heart’s desire? Here’s where we are called on to make choices. And once we become conscious of how much we want something, our success may entirely depend on the power of our attention.

“Pay attention!!!” our parents and teachers often said when we were kids. That’s because they wanted us to focus on what they were telling us or showing us or asking us to do. And by now life experience has schooled us to realize that this precious power doesn’t flow on demand, like water. Well, maybe it flows out of us like water, but when we want to focus the great searchlight of the mind on an aim, we have to gather our attention first.

So how much do I want inner peace, or happiness, or whatever it is, and how to pay for it? You might think of gathering attention in terms of amassing income in order to invest it in what you want most. Otherwise it will be spent in chasing every stimulus or demand that comes at you, like water pouring out of an open spigot.

Once you begin to know what’s important to you, the next step is to ask the question, “Where is my attention now?” or “What am I up to?” Such queries provide clues as to where you are focused. And since listening longer to questions is often more important than coming up with instant answers, why not hover there a while, absorbing the impression of where and how you are, here and now.

You could then ask, “Where do I want to live in myself?” That’s when we are forced to confront the gap between where we live and where we want to be. And, lo, there is a choice. Am I willing to pay the price of building a bridge from where I usually am in myself to where I want to be—at the helm of my own vehicle, going where I want to go? It’s painful to stand there, on that bridge of attention, between two worlds. But that is exactly where I need to be in order to orient myself toward what I want most.

Gurdjieff liked to say, “I am where my attention is.” So, yes, attention is that powerful, that necessary, that precious a faculty. And the sad part is how little control we have over it as it is pulled anywhere and everywhere, following a thought, a colorful dress, or a face in the crowd. In order to become more aware of ourselves and the world around us in a full-bodied, compassionate way, we need to be able to gather and focus our attention.

Why not check out whether what I’m saying is true by noticing today how much control you actually have over it. For example, try to stay focused longer on the movements of your own body.  Check in more often to how it feels. To do this, you could plug your attention into your hands or your feet as you go about your activities. How long can you stay connected to them?

What is this faculty of the attention? As a child I was enchanted by the story of Ariadne, imagining myself the innocent, beautiful young princess who fell in love with a handsome prince, long ago in far-off Crete. Destined to walk the Labyrinth, to meet and be meat for the Minotaur, Theseus was doomed to be sacrificed to a powerful god-monster. But love attracts love and, like all of us (whether we know it or not), Ariadne had a fairy godmother. She gave her a golden thread with which to save him. He attached it to a stone at the entrance before he went in so that, no matter how complex the turnings of the Labyrinth might be, he could find his way out.

Our attention is like that golden thread. It can lead us away from driving ambition, lackadaisical boredom, or any state in which we may be lost to our present reality. I personally try to grab onto it often in the middle of the daily labyrinth of my life, but I can never manage to hold onto it for long. Again and again I lose this conscious connection with my intention, no matter how purposefully I take it up. Wise Theseus knew he’d better concentrate, because for him it was a matter of life or death!

Hmmm. What if we thought of holding onto that thread as if it were a life or death issue, as it was for him? Here we are, hoping to stay in touch with ourselves and our wish to be present, while the body sits, walks or does stuff in real time. Tangled up in the confusions of life, we often forget. Our attention disappears from me-here-now to invest itself in something out there.

So we work to deepen our wish, and discover that the remembering to look for it is as important as the thread itself. Why it is so hard to for us to remember that we carry a secret thread in our soul’s hand wherever we go, when remembering could return us to the fullness of ourselves here and now?

I’ve lost that thread of attention a thousand, thousand times. I do something or go somewhere, firmly determined to keep it in my grasp. And just as many times I wake up to discover I’ve already dropped it. “What could help me maintain the thread of my attention?” I plaintively ask myself. “Look for an anchor,” replies my inner guide.

The body can be that anchor. So I try to anchor my attention on my butt on the chair, or my feet on the ground, or my fingers tapping at the computer, or my hand clutching the pen or cup. Finally, after many a discouraging attempt, I accept that I’m always going to lose it. But lucky me! It never loses me! It’s always there, waiting to be picked up again, ready to guide me once more toward a deeper relationship with my Self.

Gurdjieff spoke of creating alarm clocks to wake us up from the habitual ways of being that often dominate our daily life. Tune in next time for Part Two of this blog: Exercises for remembering and for anchoring our attention.

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