Whoever said mindfulness was supposed to be all gentleness, nicety, and soft? Attention is a psychological faculty. It’s neither nice nor cruel. It’s job is to apprehend what is going on in the world around and inside us in any given moment.
As David Whyte points out, attention can be fierce, and I dare say should be fierce or it doesn’t do us much good. Imagine a predatory cat. Her focus is single-minded and attentive to any movement that may spell dinner for her cubs. There is no story to her attention. It regards movement, lighting, and smell. If she misses her mark she doesn’t beat herself up with self-pity. Instead, she resets her focus on the next opportunity.
Berating ourselves for a misstep, disappointment, or inefficiency only leads to more of the same. While we are engrossed in the story, another opporutnity goes by and your cubs go hungry.
At work, is your attention fierce? Are you giving your full attention to whatever it is your doing in each of the moments that comprises your day?
If you have ever sat in a vipassana style retreat or a Zen sesshin, you know something about fierce attention. There isn’t much latitude for laxity in these environments. Meditating in silence from early in the morning to late at night wakes you up to the reality of now in all of its sharpness, vividness, and ferocity. Such intensive sitting practice can also reveal how not-so-fierce attention can be. In fact, just a brief meditation session can show this.
Fierce attention is intelligent attention. If we are not paying full attention to our environment (internal and external) we are at risk for doing stupid things. When my attention is not fierce, I drop things, break things, trip over my feet, hit poor golf shots, spill water on computer keyboards, the list goes on.
Fierce suggests protective as well. Imagine your attention is required to protect the things most precious to you. This invites an adaptive vigilance. The laws of physics never take a holiday. Fierce attention knows the difference between worry and protection. Protection scans the environment, ascertains its status, and directs us to relax or prepare for some action.
Worry is fantasy-driven and not based on the reality of the situation. It may start with that reality but quickly distorts it according to some story-based recollection or concern — always featuring “me” at the center of it all. All that may be protected by worry (or at least some feeble attempt to protect) is some idea or our self-image.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had the energy that goes to worry available for investigating the beauty and wonder of the world? If we can become that predatory cat, we can taste that.