Monday 12 February 2024

Attention without feeling is only a report

I have a friend who pays attention, who notices everything. It is a wonderful quality, although it can be somewhat exhausting for them at times. I empathise and am both blessed and cursed by this aspect of humanity. I notice things.

My friend hosted a dinner party at the weekend. It was a wonderful evening. I paid attention to them as they paid attention to the needs of those present. The food was incredible and the company equally so. Each persona needs were fed, each was served in a loving and attentive way and the conversations were listened to with an attentive ear. It was wonderful to observe someone giving their full attention to others. It was a person offering what they had to others in a deeply loving way, it was a joy to behold. It was deep devotion, prayer in action if I have ever witnessed it. My friend reminded me of both Mary and Martha in a passage from Luke’s Gospel.

I saw a similar example last Tuesday morning going for coffee with friends. It was my turn to pay and I was mesmerised by the young woman behind the counter, called Mars, who knew the orders of all 12 of us. Now we are regulars at this place, but I didn’t have a clue what each of us drink. Whereas Mars clearly pays attention to each of her customers, she is devoted to her work and those she dutifully serves. She also pays attention to us as individuals, she listens and shares as we listen to her. I often take time in conversation, I notice when something isn’t right with her and of course we talk. My gift it seems to many.

Mars told me a few days later that generally she has a terrible memory. She is diagnosed with “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder” (ADHD). So generally she can struggle with paying attention. Yet her love and dedication to her work seems to focus her attention.

Attention is about love. It is love in its most basic form. When we pay attention to one another, when we notice each other’s needs, we are living by love. By paying attention to another’s needs we are loving them and accepting them as they are. This to me is the love that is spoken of in the great spiritual traditions. It is more than passively observing in a mindful way. It is also more than empathy, feeling with another, true attention leads to devoted action. It is form of deep generous love. When we are generous we give our whole hearts to life and one another.

It is said that whenever the Buddha would teach he would always begin with lessons on generosity. He did this because it brings with it joy and self respect and therefore it is a platform from which to look at all our life experiences, including the very painful ones and thus not become overwhelmed by them. It is thought that the Buddha always began talking about generosity because he believed that we all have something to give. Our gifts might not be material in nature.

Giving begins with attention, in one form or another. It might be by offering a listening ear, enabling another to be comfortable in an uncomfortable situation, I have another friend who is wonderful at this. Generosity is a kind of hospitality it welcomes the other, the stranger as they are, exactly as they are. Attention is the ultimate welcome and act of generosity. Something I saw in my friend at the dinner party and Mars in the coffee shop, something I see in many others too. It brings me back also to the welcome of Mary and Martha.

The visit of Jesus to Mary and Martha’s is a fascination to me. It comes at the end of chapter 10 in Luke’s Gospel immediately after “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”, suggesting to me that it is teaching something about how we should offer loving hospitality. To me this is all about paying attention. Something I witnessed with my friend and in Mars at CafĂ© Nero, for example. They were both Mary and Martha it seems. Generally Mary’s Way, that of prayerful devotion is seen as the better way. Love though is also about service, both are acts of attention. Remember the visit follows the story of the Good Samaritan. A parable of loving attention and devoted service, a story of love wherever it is needed. Isn’t this the essence of the spiritual life, this is faith and works. The story of Mary and Martha seems to me to be an invitation; an invitation to everyone to decide how we use our attention; to explore how we pay attention and to whom. It is about love in its highest form. For what we give our attention to we love. Attention is true love; attention is the most basic form of love. When we give our attention to someone or something we bless and in turn we are blessed by our love. My friend and Mars both exemplified this love, they incarnated the Love spoken of throughout the Gospels.

It matters what we pay attention to in life. Yes it is vital to the spiritual life, but also the physical life too. Actually, I tend not to separate the two. Attention is the key to problem solving, creativity, and civilization in general. Our lives depend on what we pay attention to. This is why everything competes for our attention. We are so saturated by information these days, that it can be difficult just to pay attention to the life we inhabit. Yet our lives depend upon it. We need to pay attention; we need to pay attention to what really matters.

Unitarian Universalist minister Rev Victoria Safford in her sermon “An Ethics of Attention” said:

“Pay attention, say the mystics and the poets, and the little kids tugging on our legs. Pay attention, says the sunset and the ice-cold morning, and the person telling you their story. Pay attention, say the good friends at the barbecue, and the good food, and the voices in your head and heart. Only that day dawns to which we are awake.”

It matters what we pay attention to; it matters also how we pay attention; it matters not only what we look at, but how we look at life. Attention may well be our most precious resource we have. Remember it is how we love; remember it is how we both feel and express our love. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus is reported to have said “You become what you give your attention to. If you don’t choose what thoughts and images you expose yourself to, someone else will.” Attention is not a passive act, it is deliberate, an ethical act. For if we do not choose our attention will be put upon us by all this information that we are constantly drowned by. It matters what we pay attention to and how we pay attention, it shapes our very lives.

The twentieth century French philosopher Simone Weil viewed attention as a moral virtue, just like justice and courage. She differentiated it from concentration. It is not just about focussing on minutiae, it is more than mindfulness. As she observed: Concentration constricts. Attention expands — concentration tires. Attention rejuvenates. Concentration is focused thinking. Attention is thinking suspended.

For Weil attention ought to be seen as the rarest and purest form of generosity. She saw attention as the pathway to transformation, far superior to our human will. In “First and Last Notebooks” she wrote “We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.” She believed that the will alone constricts the spirit while attention is about expanding it. Attention opens us up to so much more.

Weil equated attention to prayer. Love and service to me is highest form of prayer. It makes me think of the attention of my friend. Weil wrote “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” This brings me back to both Mary and Martha, Mars in the coffee shop and my friend hosting that dinner party, with such love care and attention.

Simone Weil saw a deep connection between our capacity for paying attention and our capacity for prayer. “Prayer consists of attention,” she said, “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.”

Now of course paying attention will affect us, it should affect us and deeply. As Mary Oliver wrote “Attention without feeling is only a report”. Everything touched Mary deeply, it affected her and she didn’t merely report what she saw. Her attention was the ultimate prayer and her poetry was devotion itself. As she said “Attention is the beginning of devotion” This is beautifully exemplified in the poem “Spring”, which I will end this morning’s service with. It is a poem about spring, which is on the horizon, but it is also a poem about how we should live our lives. We should live like the black bear coming down the mountain as it awakens from hibernation, showing her “perfect love”. Mary asked the question how should we live our lives? Well attentively, loving the world, living our lives like a prayer. As Mary wrote “There is only one question: how to love the world”. Loving the world means simply paying attention to the life that we are surrounded by, loving it by devoting our selves fully to it, being touched and affected by it. Just like my friend who hosted her dinner party and Mars in the coffee shop on Tuesday morning. They served from their hearts and they paid attention to everyone’s needs without discrimination. They showed me how to simply love the world, it is not that difficult. All you have to do is pay attention, but to do so with feeling.

Here's the poem, I invite you to pay attention to it.

"Spring" by Mary Oliver

a black bear
has just risen from sleep
and is staring

down the mountain.
All night
in the brisk and shallow restlessness
of early spring

I think of her,
her four black fists
flicking the gravel,
her tongue

like a red fire
touching the grass,
the cold water.
There is only one question:

how to love this world.
I think of her
like a black and leafy ledge

to sharpen her claws against
the silence
of the trees.
Whatever else

my life is
with its poems
and its music
and its glass cities,

it is also this dazzling darkness
down the mountain,
breathing and tasting;

all day I think of her—
her white teeth,
her wordlessness,
her perfect love.

Please find below a video devotion based on the material in this "blogspot"

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