Exercises to Develop Your Attention Muscles

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  • Stephen Levine, author and spiritual teacher, once told me that focused human attention is as powerful as taking a magnifying glass and putting it right above a leaf with the sun shining through it. Even weak winter sun will start a fire on the leaf. In other words, focused human attention is phenomenally powerful.

    road-nature-hand-path-largeFocused attention is the ability to have your attention and your immediate experience come together. How do you bring these two things together? It begins with curiosity. Curiosity is becoming interested in what is going on right here right now without needing it to be any different than what it is. You, like most people, have probably spent most of your life attempting to fix, change, and rearrange the things you don’t like, trying to get to a better place. Yet, the more you try to change what you are experiencing, the more you get pulled into the game of struggle. There really is a way out of this world of your conditioned, separate self that you crawled into when you were young. It is through the ability to see what is going on (by using curiosity) which enables you to then be with your struggling self, rather than being lost in it.

    If you have never read Grace and Grit by Ken Wilber, I highly recommend it. It is the story of Ken and his beloved wife Treya’s five-year journey through her breast cancer and treatment, resistance and acceptance, and finally their surrender to her death. It is an amazing story because you watch both of them open to the power of being present for what Life is offering, then forgetting (getting caught in their struggling selves), and then opening into curiosity again. I still remember the moment when I read that one of Treya’s spiritual teachers shared something like this with her, “Without changing anything, notice what is.” In other words, the way out of this struggling self is to see it. It is the ability to say “Fear is here” rather than ”I am afraid.” Who you are is that which can see what your struggling mind is saying rather than getting caught in its stories. You are awareness, yet your awareness has been identified for so long with this storyteller mind that is a ‘busyologist’ all day long.

    In order to discover how to relate to what your mind is talking about rather than being identified with it, begin by choosing something that does not need your thoughts in order to exist and become curious about it for a few minutes. For example, you might listen to the sounds appearing and disappearing all around you, or notice the rising and falling of your breath, or savor the variety of flavors in your morning cereal with strawberries on top. As you are eating your cereal, really taste it. This is a moment of noticing what is. Then there is a very good chance that your stream of thought will take over again and it might go something like this, “Oh this strawberry is so good. I wonder where my friend got this box of strawberries. I will have to ask her. I wonder if they are expensive.”  For a second or two, you truly experience the strawberry, and then you fall back into your ideas about the strawberry. Your attention will get pulled back into your stream of thought over and over again, but that’s okay because these moments of noticing count. After all, you have only lived most of your life lost in the thoughts that pass through you all day long.

    As you develop the muscle of your attention through curiosity, you will experience more and more moments of focused attention. Slowly and surely, you will realize there are two entirely different things happening here: There’s Life and then there is your story about it. And what you long for is to fully open to this living moment, without laying a story over it.  Know that this moment, right here as you are reading this, is the only moment that matters in your whole life.

    Mary O'Malley

    Mary O’Malley is an author and counselor in Kirkland, Washington. In the early 1970’s, a powerful awakening set Mary on the path to changing her whole relationship with the challenges of life, freeing herself from a lifelong struggle with darkness. Since that time, Mary has taught extensively throughout the United States, Canada and Denmark. She is an inspirational speaker who leads retreats that transform people’s lives, provides individual counseling, and offers ongoing groups where people can come together to experience the miracle of Awakening. Her strengths lie in her ability to be fully present in the moment, integrating information, technique and insight with simplicity and compassion. Mary is committed to helping people heal their inner wars, so they can become a part of the healing of our planet. She does so by drawing on her own life experience to facilitate healing and awakening in a compassionate and powerful way. Mary’s books, which are endorsed by Eckhart Tolle and Neale Donald Walsch, include: What’s In the Way IS the Way: Moving Beyond Your Struggle into the Joy of Being Fully AliveThe Gift of Our Compulsions: A Revolutionary Approach to Self-Acceptance and HealingBelonging to Life: The Journey of Awakening; and The Magical Forest of Aliveness: A Tale of Awakening.

    For more information, please visit maryomalley.com.

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