Nowadays, it seems that time is a precious commodity in short supply. Coupled with increased and varied demands and responsibilities that have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic, the fruit of this has been skyrocketing burnout rates.
At the same time, political divisions and sectarianism seem to be on the rise, especially in the we corn more and more in the world as well as. The initial outlook looks bleak: we are tired and we are tired of each other.
In the midst of all this, perhaps what we need is a recovery from the spiritual practice of mindfulness.
Today, attention is often tied to a kind of productive focus – sought after by marketers, honed by calendars, and eroded by smartphone notifications.
Yet mindfulness can simply be seen as a deep sense of undivided presence, recognition and appreciation, directed toward God and others.
Attention is less about gritting your teeth and making a “to do” list that focuses on reality as it should being, and more on how to see and appreciate reality as is. Mindfulness is about embracing a kind of patient openness in which we “look again” to discern anew God’s presence and work in our lives and in the world.
It can start simply with a walk and paying attention to the moment: the rustling of the leaves, the warmth of the sun, the first signs of spring. When we are mindful we learn to see differently and even what looks like bitterness, disgust and exhaustion can be transformed into love.
To go even further, mindfulness is an orientation and even an alignment towards something or someone other than oneself – which makes it very much like prayer. As the philosopher and mystic Simone Weil writes“Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same as prayer.”
Like prayer, mindfulness involves waiting and being surprised by the “otherness” of God and the world around us – which refuses to be locked into our own scenarios or fantasies – to see the world with truth and live accordingly.
Like the psalmist in Psalm 73, we can be overwhelmed with grievances, slights and lamentations, then suddenly be overwhelmed by the presence of God – “the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:26) .
Then, by seeing ourselves and our world properly from God’s perspective, our grievances are transformed and we learn to respond in love. No wonder novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch viewed attention as the “characteristic and proper mark of the active moral agent.”
This brings us back to the connection between attention and the issues of division, burnout and conflict in our world today. Consider what Simone Weil writes: “The poet produces beauty by fixing his attention on something real. It is the same with the act of love. Knowing that this man who is hungry and thirsty really exists as much as me – that’s enough, the rest follows by itself.”
Today we see serious suffering: the war in Ukraine, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, racism and discrimination – and the list goes on. Confronted and exhausted by all these desperate cries, we can be tempted to despair that there is nothing to be done and tempted to do nothing.
But, the practice of mindfulness calls us to resist this temptation and look again at the world as redeemed through the cross and resurrection of Christ. We are called to look with love and attention and not to dismiss, rationalize or minimize the reality of the existence and suffering of others, this is how we are moved to love.
If we continue to seek, sincerely and with love, we can also learn to live with justice. As Stanley Hauerwas writes, “justice is a way of seeing” which does not turn away from suffering and “requires learning to be with” those who suffer.
For Christians, this type of attention is deeply linked to our attention to God, whose presence and glory fill the whole world (cf. Num. 14:21) and who is at the center of our reality. And, by paying attention, we can also be brought to a renewed, truthful, and loving view of others, even those we struggle to understand.
It is a difficult task since, as Iris Murdoch suggested, paying attention leads us to “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real”. As Henri Nouwen confessed, “it can be easier to control people than to love people”.
Often our love goes astray when it seeks to dominate, manipulate or belittle. But when we learn to pay attention, the larger, richer, truer picture of reality begins to come into focus.
As CS Lewis wrote, “You never spoke to a mere mortal.” Although we are creatures of change and chance, Lewis reminded us of our common destiny as “immortals” with the potential to share in the eternal glory of Christ.
Perhaps if we truly, lovingly, and rightly see each other – beyond caricatures and fantasies – we will discover a refreshment and joy that comes from caring for each other and experiencing work and presence of the immutable God in them.
Abraham Wu is a pastor in Vancouver, Canada with an MDiv from Regent College.