Attention, Meaning and Love
I find myself very interested in the meditation practices of my clients. Joseph Campbell once said that everyone has a meditation practice, that we’re all meditating all the time, but it simply goes unrecognized. For many of us, the undeclared meditation is about where the money’s coming from or where the money’s going. In this sense, we’re often simply unaware of where our attention lies.
It seems, then, an interesting question to ask: what is the center of attention in one’s life?
In different eras of life and in different circumstances we give our attention to different things, yet we also have enduring habits of attention—like what’s safe, what’s beautiful, what’s a threat. And if you didn’t already know about this meditative practice you have, noticing what you’re noticing may open this habit to the possibility of attending to something else.
A number of years ago a close friend of mine took his own life. Over the next 12 or so months my brother died of lung cancer, then my sister from a cancer of unknown origin and shortly after that came my mother’s death. It may not surprise you that for many months afterwards my attention centered on my grief. But it also centered on my own mortality.
This in itself may not have been a bad thing, but from time to time my attention would collapse around some physical symptom and I’d go on to make a meaning from it: that pain meant cancer of this organ, this meant cancer of that, and—my god—what’s going on with that prostate? At the time, I would no more have said my attention was on my own death, than that the center of meaning for me was avoiding it.
Even though this question of where our attention lies may remain unexplored in our daily lives, “what’s the center of meaning in my life?” is even more elusive. We generally don’t even ask that question and often our culture doesn’t seem to support this kind of reflection.
Since the birth of modern science 500 years ago, ‘how does it work’ has come to completely dominate ‘what does it mean.’ So if you feel a little lost answering this question, you have a lot of company.
In my own life, meaning is inversely related to the gap between what I ‘know’ and how I act. The bigger the gap, seemingly, the less meaning there is. What I do know is this: I want to be in the experience of love. I’m not talking about “in love” but that other thing: love itself. Feeling that someone else’s happiness or well-being is more important, in a significant way, than my own; feeling heart-broken open.
It’s not hard to discern this. When I’m not actually experiencing that kind of love, I’m acting from something else, like fear, or anger or stinginess. I either feel love or I don’t. What’s more, it’s a choice–a really simple choice–which I fail at pretty consistently. But that’s not the point. The point is that this is the most meaningful thing for me, and the only way I’m going to experience this is by making it the center of my attention.
I find this increasingly informs my coaching. While I’m helping a client wrestle with something around which they feel stuck, I keep asking myself: what’s in the way of feeling love with this person? Now, their limitations or distortions may not be particularly loveable. I’m talking about experiencing what I’ve come to call essence. What is it, in me, that’s in the way of my experiencing that?
And what’s in the way of my clients’ loving in their own lives? What’s in the way of this person experiencing love? Not just in a relationship, but in their work and in the world. Remarkably, I find when we can shift what’s in the way of our loving, other problems begin to resolve themselves.
It would be terrific if a client showed up asking me to help them deepen their loving. I suspect that isn’t likely, because we tend to focus on the symptom of ‘other problems’, but it’s implicit in the work I do. Because that’s the center of meaning for me.