"Pay attention. Stay awake and totally alert.
See with receptive eyes and discover a world of ceaseless wonders."
— Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat in Spiritual Literacy
Did you know that the very first word in the "Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy" developed by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat is also the key to all the other words? "Attention" fortunately begins with "A" as it is the beginning of all that follows; that is, our ability to experience beauty, compassion, faith, and so on, is dependent on our ability to pay attention. Yes, it all begins here at the top of the alphabet.
And yet, some say goldfish have a longer attention span than humans these days. Maybe that’s not quite right, but there does seem to be something wrong with our ability to focus, to be deeply aware, fully present, and spiritually awake to the “ceaseless wonders” of the world.
Attention is not only the linchpin of the spiritual life, but the key to problem solving, creativity, and civilization in general. Without attention, democracy crumbles, forests are blithely cut down, and scientific advances flounder. Without attention, we may devolve into a very stupid species that eventually self-destructs — if we are not yet already on that path.
But how did we get here? Is technology the culprit? Are the constant pings and dings of digital media short-circuiting our brains? Are smart phones making us stupid? Maybe. But, I don’t think the problem is so much the presence of technology, but rather the absence of something else. When speaking of the spiritual life, our addiction to technology is indeed worrying, but not fatal, that is, if we can get back to that “something else” that has been neglected.
An Antidote to an Attention Deficit Spiritual Life
I believe that the way to restore our impoverished ability to pay attention is by taking a bath, that is, a metaphorical bath: full-bodied immersion in nature. Something as simple as going outside, working in your garden, taking a walk in a park, or sleeping under stars is akin to giving your soul a bath. In Japan, they actually call intentional nature excursions away from the city, “forest bathing,” and evidence shows that people who forest bathe have lower blood-pressure, lower stress hormones, and a heightened sense of well-being. In other words, eco-therapy — aka “digital detox” — refreshes our bodies and souls.
Nature is primal and primary for the spiritual life; nature infuses us with the urge toward life, well-being, and beauty. When bathed in nature, we replenish our ability to be attentive, to be mindful, to be curious, to pay attention to one another and to our mutual well-being.
Eric Fromm used the word “biophilia” to describe “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group. The biophilous person prefers to construct rather than to retain. He wants to be more rather than to have more. He is capable of wondering, and he prefers to see something new rather than to find confirmation of the old. He loves the adventure of living more than he does certainty. He sees the whole rather than only the parts, structures rather than summations. He wants to mold and to influence by love, reason, and example.”
Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson later described “biophilia” as "the connections that human beings subconsciously seek with the rest of life.” He believes that biophilia is biological, that we are innately wired to be in nature. Wilson believes that “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction.”
Become a Biophiliac
For spiritual pilgrims, cutting ourselves off from nature, our primal longing, impoverishes our souls. Nature-neglect leads to body/soul-neglect. Even worse, without an intimate relationship to nature, we neglect the warnings of planetary destruction, endangering all life on this planet. Despite our biological urge to connect to nature, our denial of this basic need is literally destroying our habit, the Earth. We are killing our souls and our planet by not paying attention.
Nature Deficit Disorder is a close cousin to Attention Deficit Disorder, for being deficient in our connection to nature can lead to symptoms of anxiety, depression, agitation, and unfettered distraction. Studies show that children with attention deficit problems benefit greatly from “green walks” and playing outdoors.
Nature poets, like Wendell Berry and Mary Oliver, are the sages of attention, perhaps because they are also ardent biophiliacs. Nature poets are attentive to what Berry calls “the grace of the world.” They find their creative energy while bathing their souls in mist-covered forests and redolent soil, and squinting up into the blue-washed sky to catch glimpses of wild geese. This is how they create. They pay attention; they wonder and they wander. They are alert to the other part of themselves, the part of their soul that hungrily reaches beyond their own skin — to the earth, sky, land.
One of the most creative, thoughtful, and focused theologians I know is Tom Oord, author of the The Uncontrolling Love of God. As an academic and “digital theologian” he works on several social media platforms. It would exhaust most people just thinking about all he does to help others re-discover God in fresh ways, using social media as a tool for the spiritual imagination. But there is another side to Tom that surely works to restore his sense of focus, spiritual well-being, and his ability to be alert and attentive, even while immersed in the digital and academic world. He is equally immersed in the natural world. An avid hiker and wilderness photographer, his biophilia — that is, his “passionate love of life and of all that is alive” — shines through. Just gazing at his photos on social media of Idaho’s stirring landscapes, wild horses, and transcendent sunrises can instantly reset your spiritual dial to peace and well-being.
God Pays Attention
Nature restores and refreshes our attention by de-centering our tired, defensive egos. Bathing in nature gently washes away our small and stingy egos as we immerse ourselves in something larger and more generous than ourselves. And if you believe (as I do) that God is in the world, then the lure of the meadowlark becomes the lure of God as well — a divine lure toward restorative well-being, beauty, and a sense of our interconnection with all creation.
God pays attention. God penetrates each moment with passionate love and awareness. That is how God knows which fresh possibility to offer us in our next moment of becoming. As co-creators with God, we need to learn to look deeply, to feel fully, and to embrace each moment with an attentive heart, that we might be receptive to divine possibilities.
Mary Oliver said, “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” So pay attention to the Weeping Norwegian Pine that awaits your presence with longing — and you will find that you don’t have to work at it. That’s because nature lures us into a kind of “soft attention” rather than the disciplined attention of work or problem-solving. Nature offers a restful and restorative kind of attention, the kind of attentiveness that can unleash our capacity for productive work, problem-solving, and creative thinking when we return to the world of digital formats and smart phones.
By taking leave from the digital world and paying rapt attention to wild flowers for an hour, all our senses have a chance to re-calibrate, mental agility returns, and the soul is restored to its primal and proper kinship with the earth. This may not only be the first step in psychic and spiritual wholeness, but the only chance we have to become fully awake and attentive to the crisis we are facing with climate change.
Go outside. Love the Earth. Love yourself as part of nature and nature as part of you. If we desire to be gurus of attention—
to enliven our senses to "ceaseless wonders"— all we really have to do is start the day the Mary Oliver way:
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello you who made the morning
and spread it over the fields
. . . Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.