Paying Attention to the Snow

Feb 24, 2014 | Field Notes

We are having a very unusual two-day long snowfall here in the city of Vancouver. Snow has covered the rooftops, the streets, and the side walks. It has thrown this rain forest city into a bit of confusion to say the least. While it is a little surprising to have this snowfall in the last week of February, I find it all quite delightful and have just returned from a long, long walk in the snow. Soon I will need to shovel the sidewalk again, for the second time today.

As I walked I simply took my time and noticed the huge snowflakes as they fell upon the branches of the cedars I passed and as they fell slowly in front of me. It was an easy exercise in ‘paying attention’, which is one of the core spiritual exercises that seem to cross religious traditions.

In the Christian tradition, to pay attention implies an investment of the self. This investment of the self involves a waiting for insight, for an awakening of sorts, for a ‘revelation’. It requires an attitude in which one places one’s ego at the service of the other, and the divine Other. From this right relationship one is then equipped to be about the work of justice, peace, and sustainability.

Some philosophers claim that we need to attend to the ‘ground of being’, the foundation of existence as our first step in knowing. I think there is truth to this. From a sense of groundedness one can lean into the world. Was it not Archimedes who said, “Give me a place to stand and I can move the world”? Indeed, those who know who they are and where they stand make the best activists.

My Buddhist friends would seem to concur that paying attention is important in the spiritual life.  They emphasize being mindful to the emptiness that permeates all of existence. Being mindful requires disciplining the mind and focusing one’s attention upon what is essential.  As the Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh has taught paying attention to emptiness and self-discipline forms the foundation, the ground, for a life of engaged spirituality.

But, how does paying attention to the ground of being fuel our engagement in the world of action? The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber shed some insight on this question in his classic work ‘I and Thou’. There he argued that the presence whom we seek waits for us, confronts us, and inspires us. Our words, our gestures and our actions in the world, which arise out of this confrontation, give witness to this presence. It is the reciprocity and mutuality between the divine Other and ourselves that forms the foundation for engaged spirituality.

It is easy to reflect on such things as one walks in the snow. Between each snowflake lies emptiness, which is revealed presence. It is this presence that I seek and which guides me as I journey. It is this presence that fuels my action in the world, including the shoveling of the snow.

Now, time to get my shovel!




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