Poet Mary Oliver said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” You cannot love something you do not (really) see.
One of the most devastating casualties in our age of carefully constructed distraction is our diminishing capacity to pay attention. To gaze upon something and simply receive what it is. To focus our attention on one thing for several minutes without getting bored or drawn away by a new shiny social media update or breaking news story.
Simone Weil saw a deep connection between our capacity for paying attention and our capacity for prayer. “Prayer consists of attention,” she said, “It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer.”
The student who is learning to keep distractions at bay and concentrate their whole being on solving an equation or understanding 19th century Russian politics is a person who is, often unknowingly, growing their capacity for prayer.
“Every time that we really concentrate our attention, we destroy the evil in ourselves,” Weil wrote. “If we concentrate this intention, a quarter of an hour of attention is better than a great many good works.”
Every morning and evening, when I show up to light a candle and say my prayers, this is the capacity I am cultivating. I am learning to pay attention to God’s movement in my life and in the world. I am learning to keep the relentless churning of the breaking news cycle at bay so I can focus as much of my attention as possible on God.
This is why certain “auxiliary” practices also seem to contribute to my ability to pay attention. Walking in the woods. Playing with my dog. Walking through an art museum. Reading poetry (slowly, out loud).
This is why I pray out loud now, too. It helps to keep my mind tethered to what I’m doing. Otherwise it floats off into whatever antagonism I last allowed it to get sucked into.
Something I’m trying to do more of lately is block out chunks of time for “deep work,” where my phone is on Do Not Disturb and I’m able to concentrate all my attention and faculties on a creative task.
I see this as a spiritual practice, because I’m confident that as I unhook my brain from the constant flow of outrage and anxiety on social media and focus on creating something, I am also growing my capacity for paying attention.
Attention is the beginning of devotion, and that’s the kind of life I want to live. A life devoted to things that really matter, things that birth beauty and bring blessing in the world.
Simone Weil said, “We do not obtain the most precious gifts by going in search of them but by waiting for them.” As we learn to pay attention, we’ll stop missing so many of the precious gifts that I suspect are all around us.