As a retreat leader I have always been  most energized by working off the presence of those in the room and I do miss that physical closeness. A lot of retreat work I had scheduled for this spring has been cancelled or in a few cases has gone on line, but I thought I’d use this blog space to offer some of the resources I might have drawn on – hoping that readers of this blog may find, in this time of physical distancing, that this provides some sense of renewed spiritual connection

This week I was supposed to lead a retreat day on “the spiritual art of attentiveness” – a phrase I borrow from my friend Esther de Waal’s wonderful book, Lost in Wonder.  (You can purchase a copy here or here) It is a series of meditations on ways to move into a place of deeper attention in our daily lives, wherever we live, whether we are in confined spaces or out in nature.  I have read and reread this book so often that I no longer know for sure what I got from Esther and what I discovered for myself.  But I offer here some invitations to “recover the spiritual art of attentiveness,”

Esther’s book offers a series of gently suggested reflections and practices, as well as some poetry and other texts  for slow, careful reading,  She takes as her starting point the image of the monastic cloister, that enclosed space, with a fountain and garden at the center, which can stand for the still center of our hearts.  We desire to be rooted and grounded in that interior space, but  we are often distracted.   She writes:   The sense of the presence of God is the anchor, the linchpin, the rock, by which all the varied elements of daily life are brought into perspective.  Everything flows in and out of prayer: it is as simple as that.  Living and praying become one continuous flowing movement, in a life in which each element plays its part in a harmonious and balanced whole.  (p. 13).   (If God language is not your thing, you can substitute, spirit or simply “Presence,” you can perhaps embrace this broader meaning of “prayer.”

The starting point is to attend to each of our senses and receive what they reveal when we stop and pay attention, and to attend to your  breathing: breathing  in what we see, hear, touch, smell, taste, and breathing out those thoughts and fusses that distract us from being fully alive in each moment.  Breathe in ,with a count of 5 or 10; breathe out at the same speed – do it a few times – paying attention to your breathing.   Slow down. Pay attention.  Start here:  Let your day’s activities become the materials for a work of art.  Of course, “Paying attention” to anything for any length of time is a challenge for many of us – in fact clinically challenging for some.  But  there are practices that can help us to slow down and notice, with a sense of gratitude and wonder, just where we are in the present moment. Here are a few ways:

Sight is the sense that we think of most when we think of practices of attentiveness, or “mindfulness.”  An artist friend of mine once told me that most people don’t spend more than 10 seconds looking at a picture in a museum before moving on to the next, so here’s a first challenge:  I will try to take 10 slow, deep breaths while looking closely at a painting or weaving on the wall, or even a houseplant –something that I may “look at” in passing every day but that I rarely truly “see.”  Standing in front of a lovely piece of silk embroidery that hangs in my front hall, I pause, breathe deeply, and find that after 10 breaths I want to stay longer: I am seeing colors I hadn’t noticed – textures and shapes that invite my eyes deeper, and I find myself following the lines of the design, feeling a sense of centered peace as I simply take in what I am seeing, without describing or analyzing – but letting it be what it is, and learning to see.   Esther recommends taking a magnifying glass with us on walks outside, or even around the house (look at the furry surface of an Africa violet leaf, the texture of wood or flower.  Through this deep attention to the details of the world around us, we arrive  at a place of quiet, receptive seeing.  Mary Oliver’s now-classic poem, Praying invites us to just this kind of seeing.  it opens “a doorway into thanks/and a silence in which/another voice may speak. (Read the poem here)

Walking outside, I try to move with deliberation, not rushing.   I enjoy the.views, pause over trees and flowers – but outdoors is also a place to attend to other senses:  the touch of the air against my skin, or of my sweatshirt, embracing me with the warmth of my own body.   And there are smells:  mown grass,  freshly laid mulch, my neighbor’s marinara sauce – tomatoes and garlic and pungent spice,  the fragrance of blossoms,  the pansies in someone’s front yard.  Even the less appealing smells of trash and kerosene– just paying attention to what I am smelling, without judgment or analysis, receiving what is pleasant, noticing and letting go of what is not, creates its own kind of quieting reminding me of where I am and inviting me to “be here.”

In my neighborhood there is usually a low hum, way in the background, of beltway traffic –  and at some times of day the roar of power mowers from landscaping companies.  But with the stay-at-home orders I notice this has fallen largely silent.  More prominent now are the calls of birds, especially in the morning and just before dusk . I savor that sense of a hidden music.  Tree-frogs begin to sing at dusk this time of year; later in the spring and summer there will be cicadas, and crickets later still.  These are sounds I can easily ignore. But when I let  them wash over me, I am immersed in what is real and immediate:  what one spiritual writer has called “the sacrament of the present moment.”

And there is taste.  How often do I eat the sections of an orange, or slices of apple slowly, savoring them one at a time?  Noticing tartness, sweetness?   Or really savor not only the first but the next sip of strong coffee, greeting my morning.  When we slow down and notice we become receptive to what is around us and that in its own way becomes a kind of prayer – a consenting to be here, in my body, as who I am,   free for a moment from other distractions.

After I begin to notice my surroundings a bit more, I find I want to write about what I see, hear, touch, taste, smell:  looking closely at areas in my home that have grown too familiar can yield amazing discoveries.  I recently revisited a poem I wrote a number of years ago, as a distracted mother of young children.  The poem, “Clutter,” is posted on this website.  It reflects how attending to and befriending the “clutter” of our lives can free us from fuss and become an invitation to the most fundamental of spiritual practices, which is gratitude, even, as Esther’s book suggests, an unexpected sense of wonder.  Writing or reading poetry helps me to this place of wonder, as well, because of the way it concentrates the senses.   Wendell Berry’s “How to Be a Poet (to remind myself) offers welcome testimony to the way poetry and the practice of attentiveness serve each other, inviting us to live “a three-dimensioned life”    Read the whole poem here:    And spend some time with it: it invites us to a fuller appreciation of attentiveness as an “art” – a fitting together and creation of a way of living that is fresh, new, and uniquely our own.  I Other poems that foster this spiritual art will turn up in these blog posts, so please stay tuned and come back! hope that some of these resources will be an invitation to you to enter into this “spiritual art of attentiveness.”