from Intention to Attention

Intention gets in the way of attention. It begins an inexorable drift from what is, and finding ways to engage what is, towards building an edifice of will and illusion upon what is desired.

There is a push to give intention primacy, “We intend, therefore we are!” Yet, before we have any intention, we attend.

This pressure to place will at the center feeds, and is fed by, the Ego’s desire to be in charge. If intention is primal then so is the “I” making that claim. It is the I who is insisting, it is the I who has intentions. Attention is a direct connection with Being by a Being that is integrated with its surroundings. Action arises, including intention, out of that relationship. This is the human predicament: While attention brings forth intention, intention tends to take over and insist it is more important with every miss-step following from there.

That it is difficult, that we can never “rest” within attention without effort, is a fundamental condition. We can either accept that and hone our relationship with what is through maintaining attention, or we can get carried away by intention, intoxicated by its premise that what the Ego wants is primal and reality must conform to our wishes.

The closest thing to an organizing principal in the musings recorded here is to ferret out the dynamics within our human predicament and establish, and then maintain a relationship with what is that gives me a better chance of acting effectively within the swirling confusion that makes up my perceptual universe. This is the ultimate measure I use to make judgments. I accept from a pragmatic viewpoint that it is more direct and less frustrating to find a way of acting that maximizes the small chances I have not to act out of a state of delusion. Others may disagree that this is a useful, or good, or valuable assumption. But this remains as close to a foundation as I’ve been able to discover.

I discovered this insight as part of my Qi Gong practice. I was taught to make three affirmations at the close of a session; to be grateful for what life has brought, to be open to what life may bring, and to close with a personal intention. At first I didn’t know what to consider. For months I struggled with a variety of longings, desires, wishes, and hopes. Tangled up in my confusion was both a fear of exposing what I wanted, in case it would only be dashed; and a hunch that there was something sketchy in giving intention the final say.

Recently it came to me. Paradoxically, if you want to look at it that way, I found that my deepest intention was not to get tripped up by intention, but to remain attentive. The practice of Qi Gong itself revolves around opening up and connecting our physical body with our world and carving out a space for what lies behind the veil of passing thoughts and feelings we fill our days with. It is about focusing attention; on the body through movement, on the world by the ways we interact with the world in the most fundamental way as we stand and move within it, and connecting with Mind by letting go of our thoughts and feelings as we attend to the body and the world in these simple, basic, primordial ways.

We begin Qi Gong by asserting “This is where I am.” Standing here, pushing off the ground beneath, moving through the fluid that is air. Slowing down and repeating motions that explore the various physical interactions we make as we inhabit a given space gives us room to experience the fullness of a perceived universe available in that pared down series of actions. Along with this, through cycling and repetition, the parts of each motion are dissolved into a flow and lose any intention they have in everyday life. We don’t reach for anything, we just reach. In doing that we come to recognize how full that action is and how much our bodies and the world are telling us if we are attentive to what they have to say.

Through this ongoing relationship, we strengthen the body according to its needs, not just following an imposed agenda. Instead of attempting to “work on” this aspect or that, chosen by some whim which has surfaced in our consciousness, we find a way to let our bodies work on what they need. We build tone incrementally, and we gain awareness of weakness or injury or illness, along with how we are gaining strength. That process of strengthening spills over to an increased ability to attend to our thoughts and emotions. Not to be at their mercy, but to find that we have the capacity to adjust their flow and let go of their insistence. This is another form of focusing attention and letting go of the Ego’s desire to give intention primacy.

So it’s not surprising to have found an intention to be attentive at the bottom of this practice! It could be said that Qi Gong is a ritual that reinforces habits that promote presence; physical and mental. We act out the direct connection between letting-go of all the trappings of our accidental conditioning and confront a pared down, neutral, even empty practice that shows us how we can gain strength and focus and live within a conditioning that promotes presence instead of actively distracting us, sending us down blind-alleys of psycho-drama. During this practice we confront the need to refresh and restore our connection with attention in light of our predilections to place intention above it.

We think of intention as the only way to get traction on the world. We can write or read or talk about how this isn’t the only way to be, but we can’t know it without direct experience. After all, focused attention that remains attention without slipping off into a myriad of transient intentions each succeeding the other, each giving us no more than the illusion of progress; is not found in our lives today outside of a handful of ancient practices like Qi Gong. Until we’ve experienced it, it’s all just theoretical. We may be frustrated by every-day conditioning and its traps, but caught-up in that frustration we fail to see any value in doing anything else.

This is where our experience of futility is a guide. If we accept the urge to stop doing what we know to be futile, we are taking that first step to clear our “small universe,” as one Qi Gong movement is called.  The way such a practice rewards that intuition and increases our ability to listen to what our organism is telling us bends us to a path heading in the direction of less futility and greater focus. At some point, the realization of the primacy of attention stops being a mere theory.

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