764th Week: Choosing the Focus of Attention—Foreground/Background

Sitting in Central Park on a Sunday morning, there is a loud and enthusiastic race going on nearby with lots of hoots and hollers as people run by.  I’m here amongst my tree friends and what I’m aware of is the pervasive and steady quiet they radiate into my awareness.  This moment has taken me back to my experience of the foreground/ background dynamic that is always present.  By bringing my awareness to the background of pervasive quiet here amongst the trees, it shifts into the foreground of my awareness even as the enthusiastic shouting of the race slides into the background.  I feel my body relax into the quiet, into the pervasive silence that the trees radiate.

This got me to thinking yet again about how important it can be to be able to choose what we bring into the foreground of awareness and what we allow to hover in the background.  In my practice of attending to wholeness as much as possible, I do my best not to leave out an awareness of what’s happening around me, what’s happening in the world, and to acknowledge not only what brings me ease and happiness but also what touches into an awareness of suffering, outrage, and compassion. And so, shifting things from foreground to background and vice versa doesn’t mean to actively go into denial about what’s unfolding in my immediate environment or in the world. Rather, it offers a way to choose which awareness is most appropriate and most healthy in any given moment.

As I mentioned above, no matter what might be happening around me in the park (unless something were to present a real threat that needed an immediate response), I can touch into the deep quiet of the trees. Doing so doesn’t take away the other sounds around me, but it does allow my body-mind to relax into the silence, into the quiet, even as I hear what’s going on.  Because this choice is possible, for example, I have the focus of attention to be able to write this practice rather than shifting into irritation because of the amount of noise up the hill from me.  

I consider one of the most powerful practices we can have to be the ability to choose where to focus attention without turning away from our inescapable oneness, wholeness, connection, and interdependence.  So, for this week’s practice in conscious living, I invite you to play with the foreground/background dynamics involved in choosing where you put the “front” of your awareness as you move through any given day.  This might involve choosing to focus your attention on self-talk that soothes and supports you.  It might draw on remembering images that generate a particularly supportive or comforting feeling.  It might mean choosing to listen to a good-news podcast instead of flipping on the regular news if you’re feeling particularly overwhelmed or despairing because of all the terrible things that are happening in the world.

I’ve mentioned many times that one of the important things about choosing frequencies, qualities, the tone of our own self-talk, where we put our attention is that it serves nothing—and actually harms us—if we become so overwhelmed that we go into collapse.  Compassionate action isn’t possible if we are shut down with overwhelm, so practices such as this one offer an opportunity to shift gears and come back into ourselves so that we can act when constructive action is called for.

Another way I’ve done this over the years is to remind myself that right behind me, always, is an infinite field of stillness.  I lean into it all the time, bringing it into the foreground of my awareness whenever I need a breather from the stresses of everyday life.  There might be another quality that particularly speaks to you, or touches you with an ability to settle, recenter, or come into yourself in a way that serves your well-being.  Whatever you prefer, whatever touches you with a positive state of body-mind being, play with bringing it into the foreground of your awareness perhaps by imagining that you are leaning into it, that it supports you, that it has your back.

As with all these practices, there’s no right way to do this one. Rather, it’s one more opportunity to explore the power of awareness and conscious choice, the power of holding a mindful attitude of noticing where you place your attention and, then, how what you attend to affects you.  Please remember to bring along curiosity as your constant companion and to pat gently on the head any judgments that may arise, allowing them to move on through without your having to do anything about, or to, them.

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