Attention is all we have to work with. What do we think about? Where is our focus? What is on our mind? That’s where it begins. Life as we know it unfolds according to the quality and direction of our attention.
Generally, we have too much to think about. There is too much going on. You never see a spiritual master with a PDA, or even a date book. Their work is to “be here, now,” not to worry about where they are supposed to be in five minutes, or next week. Spiritual masters don’t juggle a lot. They couldn’t keep up with a single mom, or dad. They don’t even have 8 to 5 jobs to take them away from the here and the now. Yet, we think we can make progress along the spiritual path while keeping everything else in our lives neatly ordered and finely balanced. We had better wake up. And pay attention.
Spiritual masters don’t worry about grocery shopping, or soccer practice, or cleaning the gutters, or getting the dog to the vet, or the oil changed, or the piano tuned, or the refrigerator repaired, or the bills paid, and they are rarely anywhere on time. It is no accident that spiritual masters live in monasteries, or in caves, or in deserts, where the distractions are few and they can focus on one thing at a time. If you gave them our life, with our obligations, and duties, and schedules, things would fall apart before breakfast. It would be such a mess by bedtime that we would never be able to straighten it out.
Two things here: We have to get off our backs about our failure to be “more spiritual” while we are doing all that we are doing to keep our lives, and the lives of those who depend on us, going. And, we have to understand the place of focused attention in creating the kind of life that is worth living. We don’t live well accidentally. If we are going to increase the depth and breadth of our spirituality, which I take to be an essential component in “living well,” we are going to have to pay attention. And, we are going to have to let some of the things go that divide our attention, rob us of the moment, and keep us from being “here, now.” We cannot do all that we do and be more spiritual than we are.
And, this means we have no business worrying about increasing the depth and breadth of our spirituality while we have children at home and careers to launch and all the responsibilities of young parenthood, of young adulthood, to tend. How many spiritual masters do you know under 40? Under 50? Under 60? What does that tell you? The Japanese had a rule at one point, whether it is still intact, I don’t know, which reserved spiritual development for the second half of life. It is a worthy rule. Young adults could then spend time with their elders to learn how to be an elder, not to learn how to be a young adult. And, they wouldn’t worry about being more spiritual than they are, which is really worrying about being more spiritual than they can be. Young adults cannot be more spiritual than they are. Their time and attention is consumed by the tasks of young adulthood! Leave spirituality for the second half of life, when you can let some things go, and narrow your focus, and concentrate your attention, and “be here, now.”
And, when we get there, what do we attend? Mostly, the moment. Mostly, spirituality is about being alive in the moment of our living, alive to the moment, awake in the moment, aware of the moment. If you think that’s easy, I recommend you try it some time. See how long you last. It’s easier to ride a bull. You can stay on a bull longer than you can stay in the moment. But, it all starts with the moment, in the moment, and flows from the moment.
Of course, we have to intend something, we have to mean something, we have to have some sense of direction, some drift of soul in the moments of our living. “Fearless compassion,” for instance. We have to intend to live in the moment with “fearless compassion.” We have to intend to direct our moments toward the experience of “fearless compassion” for all people in every moment everywhere. That’s a spiritual thing, living in the moment with that kind of intention for the moment.
We cannot be spiritual and live in any moment with a kind of “whatever” attitude. We may well “go with the flow,” but we have a direction in mind, and will use “the flow” in serving the purposes of “fearless compassion,” say, or “justice,” or “grace, mercy and peace.” We may not resist the flow of the moment, but we will find ways of turning that flow toward the good as we perceive it, intend it, serve it.
So, we don’t just “experience the moment.” We bring something to the moments of our living, something that would not be there without us. We bring something to the table. We mean something with our lives. We have an idea of how things ought to be, and we live in the moment to see how much of the good we can bring to life in the moment. The work to envision the good and bring it to life in the moments of our living is the spiritual task. And, the good is our own, personal, good as much as it is the “good of the world.”
We have to know what is good for us; we have to sense what we need; what is struggling to come to life in us, and through us, in the world. We have to know what we enjoy, what we love, and we cannot neglect those things. There is no spiritual master who doesn’t love her, who doesn’t love his, life. Loving life and living life to the fullest is the heart of spirituality. And living so as to enable others to love life and live life to the fullest is also the heart of spirituality.
But spirituality is not so much a “doing thing” as it is a “being thing,” a “being aware thing.” A “being aware of ideas and perceptions and outlooks and prejudices and possibilities thing.” A “being creatively tuned in to different ways of seeing thing.” Perspective is everything.
Spirituality expands perception. Spiritual development enables us to see all things well. The spiritual task is to see into the heart of things; to see things as they are and as they also are. The spiritual task is to see what else there is to see. The spiritual task is to live in the moment, seeing. Right action springs from right seeing. Right seeing, right thinking, right doing, right being, right now. That is the sum total of spirituality. That’s the formula. That’s the recipe. That’s all you have to do to be as spiritual as you can be. It’s easier to ride a bull.
How we feel about our lives has no necessary connection to our lives. We can be living a lot better than we feel like we are living. We can feel really bad about a life that nobody could live better than we are living. We take our feelings way too seriously. We devote way too much attention to how we feel. We spend way too much time and energy trying to feel better. What do feelings know? How long do good feelings last? How long do bad feelings last? Why spend all that time devoted to making bad feelings feel better when the good feelings are gone in a blink? Tell you feelings to go to hell, I say. They are just out to run your life and don’t care a thing about you.
Bad feelings, good feelings, so what? What matters is not how you feel but what you see that needs doing and what you do about it. And, don’t tell me you can’t do it if you don’t feel like it. Like we have to get our feelings’ permission to do right by the moment. Like the moment has to wait for our feelings to come on board. Being aware of the moment means being aware of how we feel in the moment and doing what the moment needs done, regardless of how we feel. It doesn’t mean waiting until we are in the mood to do what the moment needs done. Feel the way you feel, and do what needs to be done, and be who you need to be in the moment of your living, whether you feel like it or not. That’s spiritual practice. We practice being who we need to be no matter what, including no matter how we feel about it.