Paying attention

Across the Philokalia I’ve read, over and over, of a necessity: “In the fear of God let us keep our attention fixed within ourselves, until our conscience achieves its freedom.”, St. Isaiah the Solitary voiced. But, what are we to be paying attention to? Am I to just look in a mirror rather constantly? Should I keep a picture of myself pasted in every room? If not anything in those fashions, then what?

Isaiah the Solitary

Isaiah the Solitary

Learning, in a fashion, to take my eyes off people with the sole intent of eyeing myself is the most difficult thing. Imagine my now having to ride around the city on the buses, light rail or with friends and my daughter. Having time to watch people is fun but, I’ve come to see as distracting. Every glance I make toward the guys around my age or above looking askance at those kids is becoming a problem. Smiling to my self as a mom or dad tries to put a toddler back in the stroller who’d rather be pulling things from the shelves too easily distracts me from where I’m learning to put my attention.

Now, none of those things and the other fractal strings of human behavior are wrong to play with. The problem I’m beginning to realize only became noticeable as I’ve started to delve into the Jesus Prayer. While I’ve been practicing low levels of this prayer life for the past twenty years, I’ve never before exposed how pervasive my want to hold to the present is.

Look at it like this. Imagine sitting in an office with a mom who brought her 16 year old daughter and beginning to run me through the sexual abuse done to the girl. There I was a younger dad with two kids well below that mom’s daughter’s age. I could have seen my grade school daughter sitting there, which would have been too easy for this dad. Thankfully, the few years of practice I’d already put in made keeping a distance from those thoughts and feelings automatic.

Listening to her mom wasn’t as important as watching the sixteen year old. Catching sight of how the teen responded to what her mother was telling me spoke more than most anything coming from the mom. I already knew how overwhelming a parent’s drive to protect a child was. Mom was only giving me a summary. Watching the daughter, her face, posture and crying told me so much more about how traumatized she’d been by the private Christian school’s teacher.

Needing to hear mom while decidedly keeping an eye on the daughter is kind of like what this fashion of a prayer life is all about. Not being able to completely step away from needing to use the bathroom, getting hungry, remembering my divorce or surgeries is each distracting from setting in the presence of the One I am seeking. It is akin to letting the mom’s words flow on by without even putting my attention on sternly telling myself ‘no’ to the thoughts and feelings. It takes more practice than what entering my third year of this brings with it.

I figure that I need many more years of practicing at this, much like voiced by the Eastern Church Fathers. So, for the moment, I’ve begun trying to emulate what I learned to live out with my clients and patients but now turned inward. It is a hell of a lot more difficult than letting that mom’s words be the needed background sounds strengthening my grasp of her daughter’s pain.

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