‘Attention without feeling, I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.’ Mary Oliver
Who are we, when we are paying attention to something? To a significant extent, our sense of contentment with our life is determined by the quality of our engagement with it – are we being attentive or mindless, patient or exasperated, narrow and judgemental or warm and open-hearted? Mindfulness is often described as paying attention in an open, non-judgemental way. Through mindfulness meditation, we learn to be less caught up in unhelpful thoughts and emotional patterns. As Jon Kabat-Zinn put it,
‘You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf’.
It’s helpful to have the skills to go with the ups and downs of life, instead of being dumped by every wave which comes our way. At the same time, it is also possible to become too detached – to be a very close observer of our inner mental states, analysing their minutiae with clinical dispassion, while showing little warmth towards ourselves or the world around us. Paying attention to our lives rather than letting it flow by in a daze is important – but so is the quality of that attention, its warm-heartedness.
I find it helpful to bring warm-heartedness into small areas of my life – when looking at a flower in the garden, perhaps, or watching a young wattle bird splashing about in the bird bath, or when I stand in the queue at the supermarket. I’ve noticed that I can be a bit ‘sparing’ with my warm-heartedness – my cat seems to get a lot, while other areas of my life tend to miss out. And yet this doesn’t really make sense – why should I be warm-hearted with my cat, and impatient when doing the dishes?
There are times when it makes sense to not be completely open, to be a little guarded and protected. But perhaps there are also plenty of times when we could be more warm-hearted and open, but fall back into old habits of slight impatience instead. I think of warm-hearted attention as bringing a soft inner glow to my experience. It enriches the moment, and enhances my relationship with the world – all this, for very little effort.
Choose an ordinary activity, like a household chore, and commit to doing this task with warm-hearted attention. Notice how this feels.