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The Choice of Attention

“If you cannot find it here, you won’t find it anywhere. Don’t chase after your thoughts as a shadow follows its object. Don’t run after your thoughts. Find joy and peace in this very moment. This is your own time. This spot where you sit is your own spot. It is on this very spot and in this very moment that you can become enlightened. You don’t have to sit beneath a special tree in a distant land.” — Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness

I don’t dabble much in meditation in the classical sense, but lean deeply into awareness. So this very moment means a great deal to this particular time traveler. We dance in the now, or risk having the moment pass us by.

Yet the time slips by so quickly anyway. This is as it should be, time being the creation of us frenzied humans. Wouldn’t it be better to think in terms of seasons or the natural cycle of a lifetime? Probably, but dinner reservations would be chaotic.

Awareness of the moment is simply being present and engaged as best we can in this time and place that we live in. I’m quite aware that I have some things to do, and have a mosquito flying annoyingly nearby, and there’s a puppy underfoot restless in her desire to do anything but watch me type. I don’t have to look around to be aware of these things, I just have to be open to receiving them as they roll in like waves, one at a time, and wash across this broad beach of here and now.

The trade-off, of course, is that awareness of everything around us makes us completely focused on none of them. There is a paradox here, in that we must be fully aware to be fully alive, yet raptly focused on our most important thing in the moment to ensure that thing gets done. We are constantly toeing the line between order and chaos within our brain.

“Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.” — W. H. Auden

Chaos is all around us, it’s up to us to make sense of it in our own minds. There’s something to the idea of meditation and quieting your mind to receive enlightenment, I’m just not particularly good at sitting still with my breath. Yet I can sit quietly for hours writing, and can walk or row completely focused on the task at hand, aware only of the next step or stroke. Awareness seems to be more essential than enlightenment. One could make a case that they’re one and the same.

So another day greets us with the choice of where to place our attention. The difference between a meaningful and fulfilling life and a chaotic, empty life is quite literally in our own head. Awareness, applied focus and a sense of purpose or direction are the recipe for a successful life. We choose what to be and have the opportunity to go be it.

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