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Theodore J. Nottingham

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Watchfulness
By Theodore J. Nottingham   

Last edited: Thursday, March 28, 2002
Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

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An ancient and powerful method of spiritual development.

One of the keys to opening the door leading to our true nature is found in the most common element in our psyche -- attention. Early Christian teachers recognized it as central to spiritual development. An elementary definition of attention might be that it is a focusing of our energy onto a subject of interest. We all know instinctively when this inner power waxes and wanes. We can remember from school days how often we found our attention wandering off into realms of fantasy or to the scenery outside the window. With maturity, we may have found it necessary to develop that "muscle" of concentration to keep ourselves engaged on a particular task.

What many people have not realized is that this same intangible power of attention is critical to our spiritual awakening. If we let it dissipate into the countless distractions of life, we will find that our life force is drained, unavailable for our ultimate task of conscious existence. Most of us lack the self-awareness that is required to realize the dignity of being human. From the character driving down the highway more focused on his daydreams than on the road and the lives of those around him to the thoughtless parent who shames his child, this lack of inner attention is the cause of our continual stumbling. Self-awareness and the subsequent discovery of the divine are rare in human behavior because they require energy.

We squander most of the "psychic gold" of our attention on things from fidgeting to outbursts of anger. It can wipe out a whole day's ration of energy, as can constant talking, daydreaming, worrying, and other energy "leaks." Watchfulness requires that we pay attention to the thoughts, impulses and desires vying for expression and satisfaction. This attention itself may prevent them from taking control. Through this effort we acquire self-mastery and establish a stable foundation for our inner transformation.

Nothing can be accomplished if we are not dependable or mindful of our commitment. We cannot be of use to ourselves or to anyone else if we are constantly tossed about by the waves of our inner chaos. We gain a "clear sight" when we lift ourselves above the thoughts and feelings that struggle with each other within us. This is not merely a psychological trick, but clears the ground and makes room to receive the inflow of a higher power.

Spiritual teachers throughout the Christian Tradition tell us that learning how not to respond to external stimulus is a necessary step for inner development. The effect of not reacting to an external event does not imply a cold, disconnected relationship to life. Detachment, as understood in the classical mystical tradition, is not removal from life but from one's own uncontrolled emotions and attitudes.

The teachings gathered in the "Philokalia" from the great spiritual masters of early Christianity, offer specific ways of developing these inner powers. Turned inwardly, attention stands guard over images coming in from without and thoughts arising from within. Persistent awareness insures that both stimuli are kept from further influencing our behavior. For once the image is allowed to penetrate within, it is on the way to being materialized into action.

Thus protected, the heart is by nature capable of giving birth from within itself to thoughts of a more conscious nature. External reality now comes to us without our filters of expectations, prejudices, and judgments that otherwise mar our view. The experts in inner warfare tell us that we should wage this war with a focused and united will that disperses fantasies. The intellect then no longer pursues them "like a child deceived by some conjurer" (Philokalia, saying 105). The masters further claim that such watchfulness gives us knowledge, enlightenment, and instruction previously unattainable by our intellect while we were still "walking in the murk of passions and dark deeds, in forgetfulness and in the confusion of chaos" (saying 116).

Such watchfulness leads to the creation of an "inner sanctuary" which is the point where God and the soul touch. In the fourteenth century, John Tauler, a student of Meister Eckhart, referred to this place as "the ground of the soul." Catherine of Siena spoke of the "interior home of the heart," Teresa of Avila knew it as the "inner castle," and John of the Cross described it as the "house at rest in darkness and concealment." These metaphors suggest a secret dwelling in the center of our being that remains permanently united with God's creative act. The self in its deepest nature is more than itself. To move into oneself means ultimately to move beyond oneself


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Reviewed by Wm Taylor Barry III 6/25/2003
Great references to the inner place! Compare with Psalm 91:1, "He that dwelleth in the secrete place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty."
Who is the icon depicted drawn to represent? Speaking of the Philokalia, perhaps an article on St. Simian and the 3rd method of prayer, directing the mind and the heart to join together in uncesing prayer with guarded attention would be useful.
I am delighted with your site. Taylor Barry of New Orleans.
Reviewed by Holly Dreger (Reader) 7/14/2002
yet another inspiring and excellent article!
+++
Reviewed by Florence Fry 3/29/2002
A fine article, which I enjoyed reading very much
Reviewed by Wendi Cali 3/28/2002
Well written, well received, thank you. I found much benefit in this today.

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Theodore J. Nottingham



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