Our world is moving so fast. Almost everyone is working so hard merely to stay afloat—be it financially, creatively, emotionally, or psychologically. There are so many voices and sights clamouring for our attention. Few people have the time or capacity to offer to others their full and open attention for more than a few short moments at a time. But such attention is deeply important for all of us, in both the giving and receiving. I’d say it’s the most precious gift on Earth.
Who are you?
What do you love?
What do you hate?
What are you most afraid of?
What are your deepest dreams and desires?
Where are you broken?
What are you here to do?
What’s really going on for you right now?
How often do you get asked these questions? And how often do you get to answer them in an unhurried way, in an atmosphere of openness and acceptance?
How often are you listened to without fear of interruption, in a space of non-judgement?
How often are you really heard and fully witnessed in either your wisdom or your fragmented dysfunctionality?
In most communication there isn’t usually enough space or safety to even begin to express our true selves, to bare ourselves open before the other. So much conversation, even between friends, tends to be a tug-of-war in which each party wrestles for the attention of the other while trying—often against their own will—to appear to be something they are not. This is a very sad consequence of the cultural conditioning which tells us we must withhold that which is most valuable about ourselves.
As William Blake put it, “The most sublime act is to set another before you.” To simply witness another in their being, to offer your attention to someone as they are, without motive, without trying to make anything of them, is a truly profound loving gesture. To be so witnessed is deeply healing, even exalting.
Attention of this kind is like the sun. It promotes natural growth, nurtures health, stimulates happiness. It can quickly unravel knots of trauma, too, and diffuse surprising amounts of stress and distress almost magically.
Yes, one of our most precious attributes as human beings is the miracle of our witnessing consciousness. We peculiar creatures are able to behold others and the universe in a way that seems to be unique among the living species we know of. Our conscious awareness of our world and the beings within it lights up that world and those beings in special ways. This is a deeply mysterious quality, one that we often overlook.
Almost all forms of spirituality seek to enhance this innate capacity, our witnessing consciousness. At the same time, however, most traditions aim to isolate this aspect of ourselves and raise it above the environing world that is its natural milieu. Awareness is sublimated and abstracted upwards and beyond the senses towards transcendence. This is a huge loss for the beautiful Earth and her manifold wonders, and also for our fellow humans.
As social beings the foundation of our wellbeing is the positive regard of those around us. As children we know we are loved through the attention we receive from those close to us—its quality and its quantity. As adults we are no different. When we don’t receive the generous attention we need from those around us we either strive to solicit it through various forms of enticing or demanding behaviours or else we seek to drown out our need for it through numbing and distraction. So much of what we see going on in the world today is activity based on one or the other of these reactions to not receiving enough of the loving attention we innately need.
Similarly we are wired to give attention. When we give our attention outwards to others a positive feedback loop is created through which loving attention is returned to us. And even more wonderful is that we benefit directly and immediately by exercising our own witnessing consciousness: it’s instantly uplifting to be present in the moment. It is natural for us to to be open and curious about our world and its inhabitants. It feels good. It soothes, calms, expands and enlivens the heart and mind to be turned outwards in attentive awareness.
When we are not turned outwards in this way, lighting up our world and those in it through the wondrous power of our conscious attention, we suffer. Our light, turned in upon itself, becomes self-agitated and dimmed. In this troubled, involuted state we get caught in internal loops, narcissistic preoccupations and all sorts of neuroses.
So, for our own sake and that of those we love we can choose to remember how to listen, to behold, to give the gift of our undivided attention. And we can seek out opportunities to be witnessed just as we are.
How to go about this?
Fortunately there’s a whole world with which to share our attention! And there are some wonderful ways to get some quality listening time too.
In terms of giving, we could look at three main outlets to get started with:
- Our own inner world
- The external world of ‘nature’
- Other humans
I believe that all three of these areas are equally important to attend to, without judgement, without grasping.
1) Meditation is a good example of the first, although it can be hazardous if it’s slated towards transcendence, as already mentioned. Meditative introspection needn’t be so formal, systematized, and enlightenment-oriented as a lot of schools proscribe. We can simply allow a curiosity to awaken with respect to what goes on in the heart and mind. Pay attention to your though processes—what is your mind actually saying? Just listen to it as you might a friend. Listen to the beating of your heart. Let your attention ride the breath in and out and rest in the spaces between. Stop trying to make sense of anything or everything and simply be aware of what is there in your inner landscape. Become aware too that around and beneath the particular thoughts, emotions, perceptions and sensations which are the contents of consciousness there is a silent presence that is unchanging, awake and utterly present. Attend to that presence—what does it feel like? None of this is in order to achieve anything beyond simply being with what is. It’s simply curiosity-driven attention to what is actually going on within.
2) Nature is a boundless source of interest and beauty. Listening to birdsong; gazing at flowing water; looking up into the gently fluttering leaves of a tree; cloud-watching; star-gazing; close and detailed observation of a flower on the stem or a squirrel gathering nuts or a butterfly in the sun—any of these and countless other natural phenomena can be the focus of your conscious awareness. Simply being present with nature is deeply relaxing, delightful and restorative. The practice of Forest Bathing takes this insight as it’s core principle. Try it. You’ll find that if you are able to exercise your witnessing power in nature for even a moment you will experience a wonderful refreshment of the mind. It is also held as true by most indigenous peoples that nature herself is nourished by our loving conscious awareness of her. By bringing your witnessing presence to miracle that is our living Earth you will be sharing a powerful blessing.
3) Everyone is nourished by loving attention. The art is to remain completely focused on the person answering as well as what they are saying, taking in their whole response without reacting in a way that removes focus from their expression and their experience. Simply witness them, with openness, warmth, and complete acceptance of them as they are. This is a radically generous act. The person may never in their whole life have received such a precious gift. Alternatively, just get involved in something that someone is doing, helping them or simply being with them and immersing fully in participating with them in the activity. Children respond best to such an approach.
In terms of receiving, it’s not always easy to feel comfortable asking for the undivided attention of another. How many people do you know to whom you could say “hey, sister/brother, I really need someone to listen to me for half an hour or so—someone just to listen and look at me in the eyes and hear what I have to say without needing me to entertain them or judging me or analyzing me or trying to make things better or anything like that. Will you listen to me please”? I can’t think of many people I could ask, and even fewer who I could trust to actually do it even if they were willing to try. Most of us are so unpracticed at true listening that the capacity has atrophied to a shocking extent, and so it can often feel like there’s no-one to listen to us.
But thankfully this isn’t actually the case.
The same three main outlets listed above as opportunities for giving listing call all be places we can go to receive listening:
- Our own inner world
- The external world of ‘nature’
- Other humans
Again, all these three are equally important areas to let ourselves receive listening from.
1) Surprisingly, we can allow ourselves to receive listening from our own inner silence. This is a very fruitful form of meditation, which is actually traditional prayer minus the externalised ‘God’.
2) It’s possible to be witnessed by the beings of nature. Yes, it’s not a one-way path through the woods. As you approach the trees, so too do they in their own way approach you! It is a dying myth that nature is insentient. Plants and animals and even the mineral kingdom are awake to what goes on around them. So go on, talk to the trees, to the stones, the eagles flying overhead, tell them who you are, what pain you carry, what you are here to do.
3) I think it’s good to get even unskilled listening from those around you, and in the process everyone involved will evolve their witnessing power. So start asking people to listen to you attentively in the way you need them to. Just five minutes can make a huge difference, and doesn’t demand too much from unpracticed friends and family! And you can offer to reciprocate too, beginning positive spirals of attention giving. There are also many ways to reach out to others who might be able to offer more skilfully attentive listening: well-held men’s or women’s circles; therapy; listening partnerships; dyads; to name a few. Seek and I’m sure you will find lots more.
Our attention is our greatest gift, in both the giving and the receiving. It is present in abundance in our lives and our world, but often in distorted forms. Stop giving your miraculous witnessing power away to the hi-jacking algorithms behind the pages of your social media accounts, to the mechanics of mindlessness behind entertainment media, to the marketers of insatiable desire on billboards and advertising pages, to all purveyors of virtual reality, and start giving and receiving it in beautifully packaged simplicity to and from your family, friends, and the other miraculous beings of this staggeringly wondrous universe.