Franciscan Spirit Blog

Intention and Attention

We’ll never get to a flourishing world without each of us beginning to live with more intention and attention.

There’s a paradox about human beings that continues to fascinate me. On the one hand, both in our individual lives and in our collective life as a society, we seem to be endlessly distractible. Our attention is fleeting and, so often, we give it to whatever is bright and shiny rather than what is needful or meaningful. On the individual level, that could look like mindlessly checking email, news, or social media feeds to the neglect of our relationships, our work, and even self-care. On the societal scale, we often dither and squabble among ourselves in the face of urgent and existential global challenges like the coronavirus pandemic or climate change.

On the other hand, we can also focus our attention like a laser and act with deep intention and purpose. Consider how a cancer diagnosis can, in an instant, rearrange our priorities. Witness how the Ukrainian people galvanized themselves against the Russian invasion and how so much of the world has responded with coordinated efforts to help the Ukrainians and to thwart Putin’s aggressions. Or think about how the scientists who developed the highly effective COVID-19 vaccines just put their heads down and did their work, rather than getting distracted by the rancorous political food fights around COVID-19 restrictions.

When we need to, we can really pay attention and do important and necessary things, individually and together.

Unfortunately, it seems to take some sort of personal or global disaster to get us to think and act with focus and deliberateness, especially in a clickbait world that seems increasingly scattered by manifold mechanisms that commandeer and monetize our attention. How can we swim against that current and craft lives—and a whole culture—in which our attention is firmly and wisely guided by our intention, rather than being jerked around by the latest meme or catastrophe? I’m convinced that if we could do so, we’d live in a way that is more meaningful, purposeful, and fulfilling. We would also contribute to a healthier society that can truly tackle the pressing global challenges we face.


Time to Increase Awareness

As with most things I write about, this is also quite personal for me. In my midlife, I’m becoming increasingly aware of the limitations of my time, skill, and energy, and I’m feeling a strong calling to move from busyness and breadth to focus and depth. I don’t want to keep allowing myself to be pulled in so many directions, trying to be all things to all people, juggling too many tasks at once.

It’s not sustainable or enjoyable, and it’s also the epitome of hypocrisy, since I run an interfaith spirituality center that teaches various forms of meditation and contemplative practice.

Author Kyle Kramer says that giving thanks for the world around us is a natural activity that parents can use to inspire their children to ask questions.

Shouldn’t I know better? Perhaps, most importantly, with our twins heading off to college in a few months and our youngest not too many years behind, I realize that I need to make the most of the little remaining time I have with them still at home. I can’t afford to be distracted, or I will miss what’s most important.

We need to ask ourselves what is most important, knowing that if it’s going to mean anything, it will have to be a short list, probably including our relationships, our spiritual growth, doing good work (whether paid or unpaid), and our physical and psychological health. If we listen, the Holy Spirit will reveal our necessary priorities.


Going Deeper

Then we can be intentional about incarnating them in our lives, just as Thoreau’s desire for focused deliberateness drove him to his life on Walden Pond. We can also see how vital it is to strengthen our attention muscles, so that we’re not constantly distracted from what we really want our lives to be about.

Of course, the primary way to do that is through prayer, especially contemplative prayer in its various forms. In that quiet, we encounter our busy mind and notice how our thoughts and feelings bounce around like pinballs. Sitting in the discomfort of this rather than letting distractions run away with us, we can gently practice bringing our attention back, again and again. That repeated return is the grace of such practice, as the loving stillness of God is always available to welcome back our wandering minds and hearts, time and again, no matter how far they stray.

We also need to bring intentionality to our outer life. Take things off your plate. Take things off your phone, such as social media apps and notifications. Commit time to your priorities—because without those commitments, your intentions will get lost in the shuffle—and then guard that time with the ferocity of a (gentle) warrior. Offer the precious gift of your undivided attention and presence, whether that’s to the work you’re doing or a person you’re with. Be kind to yourself when you inevitably fail, and then keep trying.

I can offer no guarantee that making these changes on an individual level will magically transform our societal woes. But I don’t think we’ll get to a flourishing world without each of us beginning to live with more intention and attention. For my part, as I’ve begun to live more deeply, I’m finding that, while there’s a discipline to it, the fruits are worth it. Profound joy and satisfaction are possible when the distractions give way to real presence. I feel more stable and more resilient, more focused and impactful, more loving and empathetic. More, as St. Irenaeus wrote so long ago, “fully alive.”


Pay Attention

  • Take a week or a month and keep track of the amount of time you spend each day with undivided attention, whether that’s while at work or at home. Are you happy with that amount, or might you consider trying to increase it?
  • Pay attention to how you feel when you’re in the midst of constant context switching, like incessantly checking email, texts, or social media. Do you feel centered? Do you feel close to God? If not, consider what boundaries you might want to draw around such habits.

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