My wise friend Ravi Ravindra will sometimes stop us in our habitual tracks by asking us: “What is the “One Thing Necessary?” Hugely disturbing, the question sends our minds racing through all our needs and demands. So we end up casting each of them aside, one by one. Not one seems to fit the bill.
Yet, wait a minute! Surely there is one thing we cannot live a meaningful life without: our attention! Each of us is endowed with a powerful instrument for change. So when we decide to focus our attention consciously on ourselves or anything else, we are harnessing heavy-duty help—more powerful than any of us can imagine. It is a force that can create miracles.
Now we are getting somewhere. Nevertheless, the attention must first be gathered, and in spite of our enduring illusion that we are in charge, the intrinsic energy that could serve our aims and intentions is endlessly pulled away by any and everything we see or hear or think or feel.
An example: My left hip has been hurting, which means I spend a lot of time thinking and feeling about it, while hoping the pain will quiet down. So when Gurdjieff says, “I am where my attention is,” I have to ask, “Do I really want to spend all day fixated on my left hip?” Or an example that’s often given: When I sweep the floor is it I who sweeps, or have I become the broom?
Here’s what he’s telling us. Wherever we are focused, there we are! It’s why we assume we are conscious beings even when our thoughts and feelings are mired in habitual desires and points of view. If I were to challenge you to be present right now, for a moment you would be with me, standing up to my question, saying “here I am!” But the next moment your attention would be stolen away by a thought, an emotional reaction, or the color of a blouse someone near you is wearing.
The need for a finer quality of attention is urgent, especially now that there is so much suffering and distraction everywhere we look. P. D. Ouspensky invites us to have “longer thoughts.” Simone Weil writes that the whole purpose of school for children is not so much to learn facts as to instruct students on how to gather their attention. Alas, in Gurdjieff’s parlance, our grandmothers forgot to teach it to us—in spite of the fact that it is our most important task. We could experiment with it at this very moment by taking seven deep, relaxed breaths, wherever we are, as we focus fully on our Body Being.
You may wonder why I suggest we put our focus there. Think of it this way: since the body inevitably lives in the present moment, it will always offer contact with more of ourselves than our wandering thoughts. In other words, body consciousness is a path to becoming present to ourselves and the moment we are living through. Psychiatrist Michel de Salzmann explains that
The only way to maintain and develop a free attention . . . is to have more voluntary contact, a conscious relation, with the other main functional parts of our being—that is, with the body and the feeling.
The good news is that the primary wish to be here now is activated every time we pay attention to our Body Being, the vehicle that carries us everywhere we wish to go. Neuroscientist Daniel Siegel takes it even deeper. He explains how our moods and states are linked to anatomical changes in the brain. For example, he says that the experience of presence, which he defines as attunement, resonance, and trust, “increases telomerase, improves epigenetic regulation and enhances immune functions.” Check out his powerful Wheel of Awareness meditation at drdansiegel.com.
So as we develop the power of our attention by staying focused longer on who and where we are and what we are doing, we become more conscious. Grounded in the present moment, we develop new neural connections. They help us to discover more about ourselves. More and more of our deeper Self begins to part in our active awareness.
Let’s all take Mary Oliver’s message to heart:
This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know:
that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.
Let’s clear a space for the poet in us, or the soul, or even silence itself. We could turn our attention sometimes to listen to all our conflicting voices. At other times, we could assess our body’s aches and pains with an eye to more self-care. And, whenever possible, we could open ourselves to the deepest wish of the heart as we develop more compassion for ourselves and others
Perhaps that is the One Thing Necessary: to try consciously to break away from anything and everything that may hold our attention hostage. Those away moments can connect us to the wish to be more present to our life.
Here’s one way to engage in doing just that. Gurdjieff recommends that at any moment of the day we turn our attention to whatever’s going on in our mind, body and feeling-state, all at the same instant. He calls this “taking photographs.” If we take a few snapshots of ourselves in action every day, we will soon collect enough impressions of ourselves as we really are to fill an album. We will also begin to center ourselves around a new, more compassionate place in ourselves. Perhaps what qigong masters call the Heart/Mind.