Playing with Attention as a Spiritual Practice by Mark Hage

Updated: Apr 1

My Dutch friend, Mark Hage, is a spiritual director and author. His new book, Spelenderwijs (Playfulness) is about improvisation, Jesus and daily life. I am excited to get to share some of Mark's wisdom from his book with you, my non-Dutch speaking friends. Enjoy!

Ps. Find out how to connect with Mark at the end of the article.


Written by Mark Hage from Improv the World

Photo from Unsplash by Alessandro Vallainc

From the start of your life, your attention is pulled and demanded from all kinds of directions. Perhaps you were made to cry for the first time as a little baby with a little slap on your butt. And without further loving care and attention you wouldn’t have been able to survive as a little child. Since then your life has been a growing circus with all kinds of impulses to keep you on track. Attention is by far the most valuable resource of our time.


Attention is also foundational for a good improvisor. A good improvisor is not defined so much by whether they’re funny, fearless or full of creativity, but whether or not they can play with attention. A scene really starts to flourish when a player is focused on what’s actually happening (or not). And it works much the same outside the theater.


Allow Yourself to Be Interrupted

Why don’t you stand. And sit down again. And stand again. Turn to the left. And now to the right. Say hi. Stand on one leg. Look up. And down. Yawn. Say: this is quite easy. Now roar like a lion with full force. Put your left index finger in your left ear. Now put it in your mouth. Okay, you can stop.


So, what happened? What made you follow or not follow the commands? This simple little exercise shows something of your capacity to playfully follow and respond to whatever comes at you without too much care and at the same time also to care enough to play with what’s happening internally and to decide to stop following. This is about your capacity to be interrupted.


In improvisational theater this is called, in French, disponibilité. It describes a kind of availability. An attitude of patient attention. A sort of active waiting. A form of radical openness and freedom to be able to give and receive. It is the art of doing what needs to be done in the moment, depending on what’s happening, and the boldness to make that choice. Some kind of relaxed receptivity that allows a player to be fully available to the surroundings.


Improvisors might look smart and witty, but they do nothing else but keep their attention and focus in the moment and respond to what’s being said and done. That means that they allow themselves to be interrupted by the gifts around them and their own spontaneous ideas.


Let’s give this a try with a simple exercise. It’s called ‘Point at things and say what they are’. Give it a try. Now the next exercise is ‘Point at things and say what the last thing you pointed at was’. That should work right? Finally, ‘Point at things and say what they’re not’. Which game did you find the hardest? The first one is easy; you’ve been doing it your whole life. The second one you’ll learn pretty quickly, if you use your memory well. The third one is the hardest, even if you have a preference for it, almost everyone slows down after a while. It seems to get harder and harder. Which is strange, because while you can make mistakes with the second game, it’s almost impossible to make a mistake with the third one. What makes the third game so hard?


What if you wouldn’t try so hard? And you’d just be curious about what comes out of your mouth? Allow yourself to be interrupted by your words. What if you’d play with full on energy and enthusiasm? What would happen?


Hold Your Attention

In psychology people make a distinction between hyper attention and deep attention. You use hyper attention when you’re playing soccer, serving in a restaurant or stand in front of a class, you’re focused on all kinds of impulses around you. You use deep attention when you’re reading a book or trying to solve a complicated puzzle. We need both kinds of attention during the day. We already looked at the first one, now let’s look at the second.


As an improvisor, sometimes you stay with a particular action for an extended time before you move forward in a scene. Just to explore the height, breadth, length and depth of it. Pretend to peel some potatoes for instance. Nothing needs to happen. You don’t have to create anything. Just keep your full attention with the potato peeling. Imagine peeling them as best as you can and play it. You’ll see that actually all kinds of things happen, small things to build upon: a sound, a thought, a feeling, a movement, you name it. Build upon it.

This is not simple.


Try this: pretend and play that you can’t see. Now blindfold yourself. What is the difference? First you play the darkness. Then you experience the darkness. In the first instance you are focused on the product. In the second instance you are in the process. Everything changes in the process: your body, thoughts, balance, waiting, listening.


Now practice paying attention in your daily life. Not as a product, but as a process. Don’t try your best. Look at a chair. Now try to look at that chair. Does it help? No, of course not. Trying your best, doesn’t help, it is like trying to slam a revolving door. Just follow your attention. And stay with it.


Listen to Your Life

So, how do you know when to allow yourself to be interrupted and when to hold your attention? It is easy to get lost in the constant storm of impressions in and around us. Maybe your navigating between a full and overfull life. Many people have a filled agenda, but an empty heart. It can feel like life is slipping away and you lose your grip.


There was a time when farmers on the Great Plains would run a rope from the back door out to the barn at the first sign of a blizzard. They all knew stories of people who had wandered off and been frozen to death, having lost sight of home in a whiteout while still in their own backyards. Today we live in a blizzard of another sort, and we all know people who have wandered off into this madness and been separated from their own souls.


We are also in need of a rope that can help us to find our way back home. Or better: a guide that can reach us a hand in the storm of all these impressions.


I believe Ignatius of Loyola can be such a guide to us in our time. When interrupted in his life he started to pay close attention to his inner world focusing on one question: What should I do with my life? Gradually he discovers principles that helped him find an answer to his question. We now know these principles as Ignatian spirituality: a way of discernment that can help us to live our lives with attention.


Discernment is about noticing the movements in your heart (your desires) by reading them with your mind, and following them through with your will in the decisions you make in the direction you want to take. "He was softly led to the unknown; and slowly the road opened up to him, which he wisely unknowingly followed", someone wrote about Ignatius.


This road starts with, what Ignatius calls, ‘indifference’. He doesn’t mean apathy, but a kind of inner freedom and openness. It looks like the spitting image of what we call disponibilité in improvisation. Not passivity, but active availability to do what we most deeply feel called to do. Ask yourself the question: what is my most important beacon? A purpose or foundation under your existence. Something that gives you direction. Use this so you can become indifferent to everything but this calling.


Subsequently you can learn to playfully listen to your life, both to what is happening around you, as well as what’s happening inside your heart. Ignatius describes this as listening for ‘consolation’ and ‘desolation’. Consolation is about those daily experiences where you feel alive and outward focused. Desolation is the opposite. Think of moments where confusion grows, and you shrink together. Both describe a deeper affective current in your life, not dependent on sleep, the weather or hormones.


Ignatius encourages us to take a moment of reflection twice a day, looking back at those moments that brought consolation. What is the past period has brought you joy, space, strength, courage, rest, life…? Take the time to taste these in your heart and to be grateful. This consolation, no matter how small or insignificant, says something about where you’ve experienced the fullness of life. Have eyes for the small glimmerings. Following you can more easily become aware of the desolation in your life. Did you experience sadness, emptiness, anger, a lack of love? What has pulled you away from life? Become aware of the dead ends in your way of being and doing. This also is a gift. Your awareness of your refusal or incapability to say yes to life and to engage it fully brings you to the last part. What is your resolution? What point of attention surfaces for you?


If you do all of this regularly 5 minutes a day, you can practice a kind of contemplative action: learning to taste and engage with life, not just in the silence, not just in playing, but in all things.


About Mark

Mark Hage is a spiritual director, author and improvisor. He teaches workshops in his native country, the Netherlands, gives one-on-one spiritual direction and trains people to think, feel and act like an improvisor so as to intentionally engage the fullness of life through serious play.


Contact Mark

Find Mark on Instagram and FaceBook at: Improv The World.


If you would like to receive an expanded version of this article in a form of a digital playbook, send an email to Mark with a subject line "Playing with Attention PDF File Request" and he will send it your way. Mark's email address is: info @ improvtheworld.nl

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