Hearts at Work
A Column by Jim Tipton
In Aldous Huxley’s final novel, Island, the protagonist Will Farnaby, after being shipwrecked onto the island of Pal, home to a Utopian community, falls into a sound sleep only to be awakened a few hours later by a Mynah bird calling out, in a voice that cannot be ignored, “Attention! Attention!”
We are like Will Farnaby. We have all fallen into a sound sleep and we need our own Mynah birds to call out to us, to wake us up, to make us pay attention to the world around us, to make us pay attention to our own lives, to our souls during this sojourn in time and space.
For many years I made a modest but delightful living as a beekeeper in western Colorado. Often, shortly after dawn, I was out working in my bee yards, alone, loving that holy time of day, watching the hives come alive as the sun began to cast its wake-up call upon the old but carefully maintained wooden boxes all carrying the brand High Desert Honey. One by one the bees would begin to exit, crawling out onto the bottom board, looking around, and then suddenly lifting themselves up and away to begin their day of gathering the golden nectar.
One summer, for several weeks, at one particular bee yard, a rather isolated one in the high desert, a coyote would often appear just beyond the yard. He sat there, simply watching, simply paying attention to me, and undoubtedly enjoying that cool morning as much as I did. I would sit back on the tailgate of my old blue Chevrolet S-10 truck, sip coffee laced with cinnamon (and of course sweetened with honey), and pay attention to the coyote. We had a nice relationship. Based on paying attention to each other.
That coyote had presence.
People who have presence are people who pay attention to the world around them. When we feel presence in a person, we feel the attention that person casts over every situation, so that we, ourselves, want to pay more attention to the moment. Words are quite secondary and sometimes not necessary at all.
Genuine attention cannot be forced. It is, instead, something quiet, secure, and profound, something awake in the pure present. Rarely are we awake to our own journey, and therefore we rarely awake to the journey of another. When we turn our eyes away as we approach someone, we turn away what might have been our attention. But when we calmly and deliberately turn our eyes to their eyes, like the coyote did to me, we then have presence. The world responds to presence, and that person to whom we pay attention might very well pay attention to us.
A person who pays attention can enter a room filled with people and those people will study him with curiosity because he has presence, something indefinable that attracts them to him. But it is not really indefinable. That presence that develops in a person who pays attention is calling to everyone in that room to wake up, to be in that moment, and for that moment be a little closer to who they really are.
Mother Teresa of Calcutta often said, “I chose to work with Christ in his most distressed form.” She “paid attention” to every suffering person whom she met; and she changed their lives, gave them food and dignity, both required for the spiritual journey.
The young Francis of Assisi loved to walk alone through a familiar forest. Given to earthly pleasures, Francis abhorred lepers, who themselves were forced to live outside of the blessings of community. One particular afternoon Francis felt a strange presence rising up in him as a leper drew closer. At that moment he realized that the leper was Christ (and perhaps that all lepers were Christ). Francis kissed the leper and was himself transformed.
Everyone we meet is God in disguise. We wake up God in ourselves (and others) by paying attention— not to our complicated and twisted and difficult pasts but by paying attention to the world immediately before us, by paying attention to those immediately before us, on our path.
Even the old romantic idea that “souls meet when lips touch” has to do with paying attention. The kiss that is not self-consciously attentive, that is not rushed, that is not timid…the kiss that is deliberate, awake, alive in that moment, is the kiss that we long for, a soul kiss, that lifts us to a sense of our own presence that for the moment is dancing with the presence of another.
Kabir, the 15th century Indian poet, says, “You have been asleep for thousands of years! Why not wake up this very moment?”