The surprising benefits of paying attention

Guest writer

What is this life if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.

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William Henry Davies - Leisure

I am easily distracted, I think my mother used to call me ‘butterfly minded’ - at least someone once did and it seems to fit with the voice of my mum, who is not afraid to say things as they are!  I have been aided in this by my love of and engagement with Social Media - in fact Louise Hartland of CTV News Vancouver Island described me as ‘a Social Media Maven’ (I consider that my greatest claim to fame since arriving in Victoria, apart from my role in this hallowed community, of course.  In my Facebook/Instagram/Pinterest/Twitter/Blogger/podcasting world I find many ways to distract myself - much of it genuine engagement with real human beings, albeit through a screen, and much of it educational and enlightening - but still, often, a distraction.  Some of this is enjoyable, some of it surprising (for better or for worse), some of helps me get my thoughts into some kind of shape, some of it informs my writing and my sermon creation.  But often, it can be a distraction.

Add to that my love of novels, movies, the occasional TV series, music, and guitars and there is a potential for living a life where I don’t really have to concentrate on anything, I can just hop from one distraction to another.

Fortunately I have a community I lead that demands my care and attention, and I recognise the need to pay attention to my spiritual, emotional and physical needs, along with the needs of my family - so I don’t really have a chance to disconnect from reality for a great deal of time. And this a good thing.  For there are two things I have learned to do, for my own well being, and in order that I might be of service to the world around me - one is to pay attention, the other is to allow myself to get bored.  And these aren’t mutually exclusive - both involve making the effort to turn away from distraction and to make space for thinking, praying, being with others, and being alone.

Over the past couple of years I have spent many hours walking.  Some of this time I plug in my iPod and listen to podcasts - the TED talks, Vinyl Cafe, Lake Woebegone, and Tim & Sid podcasts which I mentioned in my column in Saturday’s print edition of the Times Colonist.  But most of the time I walk with no headphones, no music, no talking - just making time to think and pray, to look at the beauty around me, to be open to the stray thoughts that bounce around my brain, to learn again to ‘be’ rather than ‘do’.  In times past I would have considered this boring, now I realise that my greatest moments of growth have when I’ve allowed my thoughts and feelings to bubble up for examination, when I’ve allowed myself to be open to the beauty around me, when I’ve allowed myself to step away and pay attention what is actually happening rather than what has happened or might (or might not happen). To allow God. That’s it, not to allow God in, or God to speak, or God to do.  Just to allow God to be, with me, in me, around me.

In the Psalms, one of the oldest collections of poetry and hymns found in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, we are encouraged, as the writer imagines God speaking, to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’  That stillness is not physical stillness, though that may be a part of it, but that quality of quieting the mind and the heart and being open to a deeper reality.  It can be found in meditation, or perhaps in ‘body prayer’; activity such as walking, yoga, martial arts, playing or singing music, dancing, creating art, even ‘working out’.  It can be found in service to others that takes us beyond ourselves.  It can be found in liturgy, art, listening to music and poetry, It can be found in which ever way quiets the thousand of voices that clamour for our attention and allow us to focus on that which is really important and demands clarity, purpose, and intention.  It can be found in relaxing, and opening our hearts and minds to possibilities, creativity, beyond the news reports, the entertainment, the distractions that we often allow to fill our time without thinking.

I confess it’s risky - opening ourselves to a deeper reality, which Christian’s call God, means we might find things in ourselves, about ourselves, we are not comfortable with, even that are painful. We might be challenged to change our attitudes and consider our focus, even to consider the whole direction of our lives, but at the same time it opens up a world of possibility - of growth, of change, of healing, even of transformation. It doesn’t need to be done alone, however, it can be done as part of a community of faith, and is always done in partnership with a God who promises, in the words of Jesus ‘to be with you always, even unto the end of the age.’

Paying attention can mean, almost paradoxically, letting ourselves no longer thinking about one thing, but allowing ourselves to consider everything - about ourselves, our world, our reality.  As the poet William Henry Davies writes at the end of “Leisure’ - the poem I quoted to open this post:

“A poor life this if, full of care,

We have no time to stand and stare.”

Alastair McCollumAlastair McCollum is Rector of St. John the Divine Anglican Church in Victoria. He has a passion for the Gospel, motorbikes and bike culture, worship, philosophy, theology, guitars, single malt whisky, real ale, cinema and all things French. You can find Alastair at the church website: www.stjohnthedivine.bc.ca and on his blog: fracme.blogspot.ca

You can read more articles from our interfaith blog, Spiritually Speaking, HERE

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