Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Attention and the Focused Life

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
The Messenger
June-July 2010
Curate’s Corner

Attention and the Focused Life

If we are being honest, most preachers would admit that most if not all of our sermons are on some level directed to ourselves. I was reminded of that truth a couple of months ago during the Men’s Retreat. Geoff Brooks noted that one theme that appears often in my sermons is the call to pay attention – to keep our eyes and ears open to how God is at work in our lives. Ironically – and tellingly – I don’t remember the context of Geoff’s comment, but I was pleased that he recognized my belief in the importance of mindfulness. Truthfully, I preach regularly about paying attention because I think it’s important and because I tend to do such a bad job of it myself.

Like most of us, especially when tired, I regularly lose my perspective and get wrapped up in my own issues – anxieties as well as hopes. Like most of us, I miss how God is active in this present moment and instead look back regretfully or nostalgically to the past or ahead nervously or hopefully to the future. That was one reason why back in April, my wife Sue encouraged me to take a few days off, get away, take a breather and pay attention to how God is at work right now in my life.

With Lauren’s kind agreement, I spent five days in one of my favorite places, San Francisco, on sort of a vaca-retreat. Although I spent some time catching up with good friends, mostly I was alone with my thoughts and prayers as I walked up and down the wonderfully steep hills of that beautiful city. After just a day or two my friends said they could see the rest and refreshment in my face.

While I was there I read an intriguing book called Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, by a behavioral science writer named Winifred Gallagher. I had never heard of the book or author before, but its title and subject had caught my eye in a bookstore so I bought it and tossed it into my bag for the trip.

While I have approached paying attention and mindfulness from a religious angle, Gallagher’s central claim is purely secular, blatantly obvious and yet usually ignored: “Your life is the creation of what you focus on – and what you don’t.” Gallagher arrived at that profoundly simple statement after receiving a very bleak cancer diagnosis. She writes that while facing this potentially fatal illness, she resolved to focus on “things that matter most and make me feel best: big ones like my family and friends, spiritual life, and work, and smaller things like movies, walks, and a 6:30pm martini.”

This resolve to control her focus apparently worked, helping to make the seemingly unbearable bearable. Gallagher writes, “Even in very difficult situations, it’s often possible to find something to be grateful for, such as others’ loving support, good medical care, or even your own values, thoughts and feelings. Focusing on such a benign emotion isn’t just a ‘nice thing to do’ but a proven way to expand your view of reality and lift your spirits, thus improving your ability to cope.” Based on her powerful personal experience and many interviews with scientists and psychologists, Gallagher concludes, “You cannot always be happy, but you can almost always be focused, which is the next best thing.”

Naturally, it would be much better if we paid attention and practiced mindfulness in our everyday lives rather than in the midst of a personal crisis. Our relationships are a good place to start. Gallagher writes, “Attention, from the Latin for ‘reach toward,’ is the most basic ingredient in any relationship, from a casual friendship to a lifelong marriage. Giving and receiving the undivided sort, however briefly, is the least that one person can do for another and sometimes the most.” How often do we really pay attention to other people – our co-workers, fellow parishioners at coffee hour, our friends, our relatives, our spouses? How would our lives be different if we developed the discipline of mindfulness, of living in this moment, of taking in and appreciating the gifts that we are receiving right now from and through the people in our lives?

To circle back to our lives as Christians, how can we ever hope to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul and mind and to love our neighbor as ourselves, if we are unwilling to pay attention to God and to the people around us? In her book, Gallagher offers this quote from the poet W.H. Auden, “To pray is to pay attention, or shall we say, to ‘listen’ to someone or something other than oneself.”

Since we’re all works in progress, no doubt we’ll keep stumbling at paying attention to God at work in our lives and in the world around us. In a world that seems to demand relentless multitasking, we’ll still struggle to focus on what’s most important. So, I’m sure I’ll keep preaching to myself and to you about the importance of mindfulness. But, I think from now on I’ll try a little harder to practice what I preach!