The poet Mary Oliver writes that the way to live a life is this: “Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.” I love the poem, but it convicts me. I worry that I’m losing my capacity to pay attention.
Just as I spend hours toggling between different windows in my web browser, I flit from thought to thought, task to task. In order to focus on one thing, I have to intentionally withdrawal myself from the distractions. It takes effort.
I’m far from alone in this; Nicholas Carr’s 2011 book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, was acclaimed as a “Silent Spring for the literary mind.”
I worry about this because I believe that paying attention is important, and not just for my productivity at work and for my relationships with those around me. I’m concerned with the ways my “monkey mind” affects my spirit.
One of my favorite definitions of prayer is that it is the practice of paying attention. Not merely that you must pay attention while you’re praying, but that prayer itself is the act of attending: to God, but also to the beauty – and ugliness – before us.
Paying attention is the precursor to so many critical virtues: how can I be grateful or compassionate or wise or loving if I have not first paid attention?
As a person of faith, I plumb my religious tradition for wisdom to step out of the “shallows” and into the deep. The ancient Christian practice of lectio divina – divine reading – is a rich and adaptable tool for cultivating the art of paying attention. It is a method of prayerful reading that is almost as simple – and profound – as Mary Oliver’s instructions for life.
A fuller introduction is available here, but the gist of the practice is this: select a text. Christians traditionally focus on a biblical text, but one could also select a poem or prayer. Read it slowly, intentionally. (Yes, it’s frustrating: the only way to learn to pay attention is to – wait for it – pay attention.)
Consider how the text is speaking to you. Listen for the “still, small voice” of the Spirit. What word or phrase moves you? Does the passage evoke gratitude, sorrow, awe, confession?
Respond accordingly. For many, this may include spending some time in prayer.
Finally, rest in the presence of the sacred. Let the words find their way into the marrow of your spirit. Just be, trusting that God is with you.
I cannot multi-task when I’m practicing lectio divina. It doesn’t miraculously quiet “monkey mind,” but this small act of reverence is also a powerful form of resistance. I will not let technology and bad habits encumber my spirit. I refuse to accept that my attention can only and ever be divided.
If we cultivate our ability to pay attention, I haven’t a single doubt that we will indeed be astonished. We won’t merely tell better stories; we will live better stories.
Have you ever practiced lectio divina?