Attention and Intention

I first began practicing yoga regularly in 1999, and for much of my first few years of practice, I took more classes from Rolf Gates than from anyone else.

Rolf doesn’t cut the familiar profile of a yoga teacher: he’s an ex-Army Ranger, marathoner and wrestler who is built like an NFL running back, one for whom physical hardship is something to chuckle at. When I’d be straining 30 minutes into a class and Rolf would smile and bellow, “We have miles to go before we rest!” I’d know that Rolf had been there and done that, and I’d remind myself to toughen up a bit.

But although the physical toughness was what you’d first see when you met Rolf, he taught a deeply reflective and introspective class. The son of six generations of ministers, Rolf followed his time in the Army with a stint as a social worker and a substance abuse counselor. All of this came together in a yoga class that might have seemed to be about sweating like crazy and the serenity that followed, but really was about wisdom and perspective. Regulars at his class used to call it “the church of Rolf.”

Rolf and I both left Boston years ago, and I miss his class, so I’m thankful that I can now take his class virtually, online.

I took one of these classes the other day, and I noticed that, as Rolf has continued to grow and deepen as a teacher, his wisdom has become both simpler and more profound. I experience Rolf as a student of life, someone who is winnowing down what he is learning, finding his way to the essence of his truth.

In the class that I took, the mantra Rolf kept repeating was, “As you breathe, know that you are breathing.”

Indeed.

This phrase stuck with me the next morning as I made my way to the train on my  commute – walking too fast as I quickly checked the weather on my phone, rushing and distracted. And then I looked up, saw the blue sky, the bright white clouds and the swaying trees, and thought, “When I walk, shouldn’t I know that I am walking?” Of course I should.

This is about attention and intention.

Attention is the choice to focus my energies on the action I’m engaged in. If I’m walking to the train, I can bring my attention to that action, and experience the world more fully. This gives the space to allow what I’m doing penetrate my mind and my body.

Intention both precedes and follows attention. I can use my intention as the source of the actions that I take. And intention can follow attention since the act of reflection can give rise to a new set of intentions in a powerful set of connecting loops: I set a purpose in a given moment, and, when I am fully present in that moment, I can let that experience guide my next intention – a loop that is both deliberate and open.

What I’m realizing is that I’ve come to the point in my life where I’ve got no more time to squeeze out of my days. There are no big breakthroughs in efficiency on the horizon. If that’s the case – if I’m not going to uncover any more time – then the only leverage left to me is around how I spend that time. Sure, I may still be able to shift how I spend a few hours here and there, but the big remaining shift, one that I’m sure will take a lifetime to unfold, is around the quality of attention and intention I bring to each and every moment.

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