by D. Patrick Miller
Recently I came across the phrase “sustained compassionate attention,” and the words riveted my attention. It became a kind of mantra that I found myself repeating in an attempt to glean its deeper meanings.
Online research revealed that the phrase probably originates with the naturalist and painter John Muir Laws, who has written:
“A useful way to define love is sustained, compassionate attention. Paying sincere attention to, and developing a rich curiosity about others helps us to be kind. This attention takes work and improves with practice. Whether with a child, partner, student, or stranger this practice changes who you are and your understanding of your relationship.”
Many of us think of love as something that happens to us (as in romantic love), or is required by the circumstances of family (in which case it’s often conflicted), or even as a moral or religious obligation. That kind of love often veers into superficiality or hypocrisy, easily seen in the ritual offer of “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the massacre du jour.
Love can seem cruel, ephemeral, evasive, or even dangerous whenever we think it’s something that happens to us — or that it exists only outside us and thus must be pursued, claimed, and jealously guarded once procured. It takes a certain degree of maturity to recognize that real love is an intention that requires a conscious choice, and frequent rededication to that choice, to become a constant healing force in our lives.
The mystery of sustained love
Laws’ phrase also brought to mind what the philosopher Jacob Needleman wrote about “sustained love” in A Little Book on Love. We discussed that idea in an interview that appears in our book NECESSARY WISDOM:
You speak of sustained love as “a mystery in broad daylight.” The most obvious meaning of “sustained” is “over time.” How is the mystery of love sustained over time different from the mystery of falling in love?
NEEDLEMAN: "When you fall in love, it happens all by itself. It’s not something you do deliberately, it more or less happens to you. There’s no resistance from aspects of yourself that want to go another way; you’re not struggling or trying to exercise your will or intention. There’s no reckoning of time, and you’re not aware of anything but the movement of falling in love.
"We all know from such experiences of passion that while we are with the person we love, time stands still as if it doesn’t exist. The sense of time that we’re used to involves the mind and thinking, and is at the service of fear, planning, and manipulation. Those aspects of the self are what ordinarily make time into an enemy, and makes us feel driven. Time re-enters the experience of falling in love only when fear comes back, when we begin to feel that we must hold onto the love, and don’t want to let go. Or we start worrying about how this new love will fit into the rest of our lives. Then time seems to exert pressure again. But in the midst of the bliss of love, the mind and its fears has no authority at all.
"Sustained love has to do with struggle. The automatic gift of love that is given to us by nature begins to change by encountering resistance — where something comes in against it, an inevitability in any process of life. When resistance appears, intention is required. People who can’t make it past that point will go looking for another hit of automatic love; they’ll want to fall in love over and over again because it doesn’t require so much work. Because there always comes a point in the real love relationship when work is required, and that means working against all the impulses and distractions that we are heir to: other attractions, jealousy, sense of inadequacy, fear of responsibility, not to mention dealing with the simple day-to-day matters of life that can wear us down. These difficulties don’t appear all at once; they occur over time, and that’s why you must renew your intention many times to create sustained love."
The doing of God
"Sustained love" is also at the heart of any true spiritual discipline. My own path, A Course in Miracles (ACIM), offers this startling redefinition of divinity: "God is but love, and therefore so am I." I've always found that idea inspiring, because it positively transforms the idea of God from what I was taught as a child, from the traditional Christian perspective. Instead of a willful, omnipotent SuperDaddy out there somewhere who sits in judgment of our sins and dispenses salvation or damnation as He sees fit, God is recognized as nothing more nor less than our own inner capacity to love.
But the idea becomes even more intriguing with this revision: "God is sustained compassionate attention, and therefore so am I." That changes our spiritual self-identity from the mere concept of love to the doing of it. As Dr. Needleman notes above, sustained love is work — and in this sense, love is the work of becoming Godlike. That doesn't mean becoming omnipotent, judgmental, or even pure and noble. It just means paying attention to whatever goes on around and within us — with sustained compassion.
And I would add that a central element of compassion is forgiveness, because so much of what we see with sustained attention will be difficult to handle. We'll often want to turn away when our capacity for compassion seems overwhelmed, or we'd just like to take a break to go cold or unconscious. I've certainly seen people run shrieking from forgiveness, or respond with hostility to compassion; I've done it myself more times than I care to remember.
This backlash against love is what ACIM calls the "attraction of guilt": "Where the attraction of guilt holds sway, peace is not wanted." (ACIM Text 19:IV.B). In the chronic condition of rejecting God-as-love, we are likely to call an habitual misery 'happiness', and settle for an ongoing inward turmoil as the best substitute available for inner peace. Living in a tiny dark enclosure of jealously guarded pain, it becomes doubly difficult to extend any compassionate attention to the world around us.
Rewakening from lapses
The best metaphor I've ever heard about sustaining attention is that of an airliner's autopilot system — which works not by homing in on a destination and flying the plane straight there without error, but by constantly performing micro-corrections whenever the plane begins to wander off course. So too it is with our spiritual attention. No one can sustain perfect attention to anything on a perpetual basis, but anyone can learn to reawaken from lapses of attention and get back on course. This is the fundamental technique of almost every form of meditation.
Otherwise there's really no secret to sustaining love. It's just a decision that you make once, twice, or a hundred times a day, repeating as necessary. Whether that decision has to do with meticulously drawing a nature scene, tending to a crying child, or writing a blog, what makes it loving and powerful is the intention to proceed with rich curiosity, kindness, and forgiveness. Perhaps the more we can all learn to sustain love this way, the less often we will find ourselves with nothing but "thoughts and prayers" to answer the world's everyday eruptions of lovelessness.
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