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Paying attention takes practice

We’ve no doubt heard this many times from our parents and teachers. And if we’ve just clumsily spilled the milk, the person speaking might be angry, and we might feel ashamed. But let’s bracket the circumstances and slow this down so that we can unpack the statement itself.

On the outer level, we might be admonished to “pay attention” for very practical purposes, and even for survival matters, such as walking through the wilderness. In a more subtle way, it might be more of an invitation than an admonition. For example, we might be invited to slow down, take a breath, come into the moment and take in the beauty all around us.

On an interactive level, it might remind us to pay attention to our impact on another person or to their impact on us. Inwardly it might remind us to be in our body, to feel our feelings, and so on. It might invite us to a greater self-knowledge by paying attention to the ways in which we pay attention. For example, do we focus on what could go wrong, seeing the world through a lens of fear, expecting the worst?

We might become curious about the lenses through which we see our present experience. We might be curious about the conditionings we have acquired that occlude fresh experience. For example, what stories do we tend to tell ourselves? What beliefs do we tend to entertain in our minds? How do we tend to identify ourselves within our stories and beliefs?

Even more essentially, “pay attention” might invite us to pay attention to the present moment, even to the paying attention itself. It might invite us to attend to the pure awareness that is here in every moment, but which we generally pass by in our attending to the content of experience and our reactions to it and judgments of it.

Paying attention requires some effort, some intention, like a practice. And yet, beneath that, we might notice an effortless attention, awareness, a presence of consciousness that we are not doing, constructing, controlling. We might discover this to be our inner nature.

Let’s go further to make all of this more impactful in daily life. “Pay attention” translates into the spiritual practice of self-observation or observing your own mind as a primary value. It is a commitment more primary than judging others or oneself, self-defensiveness, reactivity, self-justification and so on — simply observing without judgment, for the power is in the observing, in the truth that is revealed.

In fact, if judgment arises, observe that. If you judge yourself for not observing, simply observe that. If such self-talk gets you depressed, simply observe that. Don’t just observe from a distance, feel into it, but with awareness. Awareness is prior and stronger than being carried away by your thoughts, your emotions or your passions. Awareness observes the movements within awareness. This takes practice and commitment. But it is not about beliefs or committing to an ideal, for it is always simply in the moment, and it proves its own worth.

Love is wonderful, but you need the power of discernment to tell when you are going off into mere lust, or nuances of love that are colored by expectations, romantic idealizations and the like. The practice of self-observation helps you disengage from the personality and conditioning so that the essence can emerge.

If you don’t like what is revealed about yourself, then you observe that. You get curious, “Who is this ‘I’ who doesn’t like what is being revealed?” This practice is not just head or heart. Yes, it is mindful, and it is also compassionate because it sees the unnecessary suffering you put yourself through. The graceful nature of the practice, arising from your essence, is not from shaming, blaming, should-ing, but simply from observing, from simple but subtly nuanced awareness.

You might be wary that this practice could undermine your ability to be spontaneous, have fun and enjoy your life. This is understandable but ego is not really spontaneous, whereas living from essence is the very essence of spontaneity and joy.

Ed Hirsch offers a free weekly presence gathering at the Ashland library Guanajuato Room from 7 to 9 p.m. Mondays, where they deepen into presence with music and have time for personal reflection and Q & A. For information, email presenceofone@yahoo.com. Email 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of inner peace to Sally McKirgan at innerpeaceforyou@outlook.com.