Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Following the Path of Gnosis: The Spiritual Exercise of Attention

Gnosticism can be seen as flowing from the joining of three major streams of Western practice and thought: the philosophical traditions, particularly the practices of Platonism; the mystery traditions (aka “schools” or “cults”) of mythic and symbolic experiential religious transformative practices; and, the “apocalyptic” (in the sense of visionary) traditions, principally those within Judaism. Because of our modern understanding and modern practice of philosophy, we often view ancient philosophy through a modern lens, seeing it as an abstract, theoretical, or system-bound way of thinking. However, in the ancient world philosophy was primarily a way of life, a practice of self-transformation.
The philosophical act is not situated merely on the cognitive level, but on that of the self and of being. It is a progress which causes us to be more fully, and makes us better. It is a conversion which turns our entire life upside down, changing the life of the person who goes through it. It raises the individual from an inauthentic condition of life, darkened by unconsciousness and harassed by worry, to an authentic state of life, in which he attains self-consciousness, and exact vision of the world, inner peace, and freedom. (Hadot, 1995, p. 83)
The means of achieving these goals of living out a philosophy were spiritual exercises. When there is mention of “spiritual exercises,” there is a strong association with the work by Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (aka Jesuits). However, Ignatius is not the originator of the concept, but a later exemplar of a long tradition that predates Christianity.

Spiritual exercises are essentially intentional techniques for growth and transformation that include: modifying consciousness, training the mind, preparing/preempting reactions to experiences, developing mental and emotional capabilities, focusing attention, etc. Pierre Hadot (1995) has traced the use of spiritual exercises in the philosophical practices of antiquity at least as far back as Plato. And, similar types of practices are a hallmark of religious and spiritual practice.

Attention (prosoche) is named in both of Philo of Alexandria's lists of spiritual exercises. This is the focus on the present moment, a vigilance and readiness to act and react to what is present. This is a practical emancipation of ourselves from being caught up in past or future, or any other dissociated state, through applied attention. The present is the only situation in which we have the freedom to act, in considerations of the past and future we can only be reactive. We are more familiar with this exercise from the Buddhist tradition where it is called “mindfulness.”

As a meditation teacher instructed a group I was in, “We often say that it is very easy to be mindful. The difficulty is remembering to be mindful.” This points us to the core of the exercise: it is not simply having the capacity for attention or mindfulness, but applying attention that is the spiritual exercise and that application is were the difficulty lay and where some discipline is required. The description of this as an “exercise” is apt, for just like a physical exercise, one has to actually perform it to gain any benefit. Knowing how to exercise, being capable of exercise, and knowing that exercise is beneficial, isn't enough—it must be performed regularly. This failure to exercise is a particular danger in the case of spiritual exercises, as we may have a tendency to dismiss them as merely “mental” exercises. And in a sense think that thinking about them is somehow equivalent to doing them.

Attention is also like a physical exercise in that it is more difficult when beginning, and that one encounters resistance and may discontinue after trying it a few times when immediate dramatic results do not manifest. A number of strategies will help with this. One is making a commitment to a mindfulness meditation class or group. These can be found almost everywhere. An experienced and knowledgeable instructor can greatly aid in getting started and save you time in developing skill as you progress. However, the benefits of committing to a class or group can almost be replicated on your own by having a specific place, a specific time, and a conducive environment to work through the issues in beginning the practice of attention. The “technique” is simple yet there are a lot of skills that can help. The usual method of beginning is to focus your attention on your breathing for a set amount of time. There are many variations possible, such as different targets of the focus of your attention, the main thing is to find a focus that works for you. When you catch yourself having drifted in your focus, re-focus and continue. Over time you become capable of maintaining focus for longer, and catching your mind wandering more quickly. When you have performed this basic focusing exercise for long enough, you can begin the actual exercise of maintaining attention in more circumstances and for longer in your life.

The most frequent excuse or complaint concerning any exercise is that you don't have enough time. However, as you practice mindfulness you will realize that it is the only time when you are really living. So, it isn't that you don't have time in your life, but this is when you actually get to live your life. The indirect benefits also vastly outweigh the cost in time spent, as research shows that even a little mindfulness exercise improves focus and performance (University of Pennsylvania, 2007). Furthermore, as you progress you can exercise in more situations. Being mindful while washing dishes, for example, makes washing dishes a spiritual exercise. It is something of great value that can be added to many situations. Such as, enjoying the time spent waiting, instead of feeling frustration. Or, being able to give our full attention to someone as the precious gift that it is.

This exercise of attention is exercising and developing consciousness of awareness itself. And, every situation we can exercise attention in, it another situation where we are now free not only to act, but to be. This is not only a basic skill and a place to start on the path of Gnosis, it is a very powerful tool in its own right, for it is the ability to focus, to shine, the light within. As the Gospel of Thomas says, "within the person of light there is light. If it shines, the world is illumined. If it does not shine, there is darkness."

Hadot, P. (1995). Philosophy as a way of life: Spiritual exercises from Socrates to Foucault. Cambridge: Blackwell.

University of Pennsylvania (2007, June 26). Meditate to concentrate. ScienceDaily. Retrieved March 24, 2008, from


M'Tass said...

I recently attended a sales pitch for a trancendental meditation (TM) program. The instructor said that the act of meditation (following the TM technique) is "effortless". This is based on the premise that the reason the mind wanders is because it is seeking out things which make it happy. When it finds something that makes it happy it will naturally focus on it without effort. This technique is contrasted to a meditation where the mind tries to focus. Although I do not know what the TM technique is, this explaination does ring true to me based on some earlier experiences I have had with "effort" based meditation. I found it very difficult and frustrating to keep my mind from wandering.

Any thoughts?

Troy W. Pierce said...

While I am unfamiliar with the methods of TM (there have been enough oddments surrounding it to keep me from inquiring) there is truth to what you point out. If you just try to keep your mental space clear by mental effort, you end up playing Mickey Mouse in the sorcerer's apprentice--it is a task of ever increasing difficulty. However, it is incorrect to call other forms of meditation effort-based. A good meditation teacher will help students steer clear of trying to apply mental effort against mental phenomena, such as struggling against intruding thoughts.

What does work is experiencing/realizing the livingness, the vivacity of attention--feeling more alive and free rather than more constricted and deadened. Transcending the thinking-identity process is the initial purpose of mindfulness meditation. Instead of struggling against intruding thoughts on the same level, one remains on the "higher ground" of attention--and that is the point. It transcends the opposition, as Jung might say.

Another way of looking at it is that opposing force with force is difficult and cannot be relied upon. But taking a higher perspective, having a quality of mindful attention, doesn't require force. It is the difference between trying to block attacks in a fight, and not getting into a fight in the first place. The latter is always the wiser course. A karate instructor told us that we learn martial arts not to fight better, but so we won't need to fight.

Hope that helps.