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Lent and well-being: Paying attention

February 22, 2013
Jessica Stone

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This week we’ve been talking about slowing down. Slowing down, even if only for a 1-minute vacation or meditation, nourishes our physical and mental well-being by, at the minimum, easing stress and relaxing muscle tension.

But slowing down is good for our souls, too. Barbara Brown Taylor, in her book An Altar in the World,  describes the spiritual practice of paying attention as a way to cultivate reverence.

The practice of paying attention really does take time. Most of us move so quickly that our surroundings become no more than the blurred scenery we fly past on our way to somewhere else. We pay attention to the speedometer, the wristwatch, the cell phone, the list of things to do, all of which feed our illusion that life is manageable. Meanwhile none of them meets the first criterion for reverence, which is to remind us that we are not gods. If anything, these devices sustain the illusion that we might yet be gods—if only we could find some way to do more faster.

Taylor recommends the following two practical exercises:

The easiest practice of reverence I know is simply to sit down somewhere outside, preferably near a body of water, and pay attention for at least twenty minutes. It is not necessary to take on the whole world at first. Just take the three square feet of earth on which you are sitting, paying close attention to everything that lives on that small estate.

. . .

If you cannot go outside, then find a pencil and a piece of paper and spend twenty minutes drawing your hand. Be sure you get the freckles right, the number of wrinkles around each knuckle. If you are old, marvel at what has happened to your skin. If you are young, find your lifeline. Pay attention to the scars if you have them.

And there’s this:

It is not necessary to invent new practices, of course. Praying for thine enemies is as old as the Sermon on the Mount. So is the laying on of hands, the anointing of the sick, and the bathing of the dead. If you have ever done any of these things, then you know that it is just about impossible to do them without suffering a sudden onset of reverence. They accomplish this, I think, by giving you something so important to do that you are entirely captured by the present moment for once. For once, you are not looking through things, or around them, toward the next thing, which will become see-through in its turn. For once, you are giving yourself entirely to what is right in front of you, and what is right in front of you is returning the favor so that reverence is all but unavoidable.

This weekend I’m going to practise paying attention. It’s an ideal time of year for it, with new signs of spring every morning. In a way, that’s the easiest kind of attention to give, the least demanding. What’s a bit harder is to pay attention, real attention, to the humans around me. To put down the laptop, or stop trying to think of what I’m going to do or say next while I wait for them to finish speaking; to listen, with no agenda, to see them as they are in that present moment. ‘I see you,’ they say in Avatar. And it’s easy to understand why that has as much impact, more even, than the oft-glib ‘I love you’.

Because I’m an unabashed fan, here’s one more from Taylor: Regarded properly, anything can become a sacrament . . .


Jessica Stone
Jessica Stone is Ministry Co-Ordinator for CMH: Ireland.


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