on paying attention for the shopping

Earlier today I was in our neighbourhood supermarket, doing the weekly shop. Peering down at my list, steering around other trolleys, examining the shelves: my attention was focused on getting through the shop as efficiently and swiftly as possible. Other people formed the backdrop to my quest, their conversations drifting past me as they passed me in the aisles. I manoeuvred past employees unloading crates and straightening items into neat rows, around small children in pushchairs with beleaguered mothers holding their laden handbaskets. And when I finally reached the tills and had unloaded my shopping onto the conveyor belt, there was a pause as the couple in front of me packed their bags and shuffled about for their debit card. I stood by the checkout and stared back into the expanse of aisles, lost in a daydream.

Very gradually I became aware of a small knot of employees standing a few feet away, discussing some aspect of their work. And then I happened to notice in the corner of my eye that the woman at my till was making a comment to the woman at the next till across the way, something to do with the timing of their breaks. At that point a manager in a shirt and tie, carrying a clipboard, walked past and over toward the customer service desk, calling out to someone who was stationed there and issuing some instruction or other. And finally I recalled that as I’d walked through the shop, the employees straightening the shelves had been chatting and gossiping together as they worked.

I suddenly became aware of this complex network of people and tasks, which had been buzzing along right under my nose as I’d filled my trolley. It was as though this parallel reality had been taking place invisibly, entirely unnoticed by me. Two layers of narrative: the employees and the shoppers, each focused on their own agendas. Of course there are plenty of points where the two narratives meet: customers asking where some item may be found, requesting cigarettes at the news kiosk, or paying for their goods at the till. But for the most part, the two narratives co-exist, each in their own realm. The employees focus on their given tasks, with customers forming a constantly moving backdrop; the shoppers search out their items, with employees likewise forming a backdrop.

All it took was a shift in attention, to suddenly become conscious of that parallel reality taking place right beside me. And it occurred to me, what if reality itself is along a spectrum, like the wave spectrum in physics? What if we’re merely tuned into just a very small fraction of what is taking place around us? What if there are parallel narratives extending indefinitely? Well of course there are: every person in that shop carries around their own individual narrative, their personal history and their network of family, friends, acquaintances and co-workers. So all these different narratives co-exist simultaneously, all these threads of individual consciousness and attention, as well as all the infinite connections between them – all these layers upon layers of information that form the stories of our lives.

Certainly this isn’t a new speculation. Mystics across the centuries and in many cultures refer to the idea that spiritual grace flows through the here and now, if only we stop striving so hard for something beyond ourselves and instead simply shift our attention, allowing ourselves to be fully in the present. Spirituality is not something remote and abstract, it is very grounded and intimate.

All this reminds of a book I’ve recently read, The Naked Now by the liberal theologian Richard Rohr. In it he suggests that

The essential religious experience is that you are being “known through” more than knowing anything particular yourself…. We are always and forever the conduits, the instruments, the tuning forks, the receiver stations…. We slowly learn the right frequencies that pick up the signal.

I know from my own experience that reality can become very strange indeed. I’ve tuned into new frequencies which were the-same-but-not-the-same, there-but-not-there, as real as real and as ethereal as the bent light of a rainbow. Very much like the shift in attention which occurred this afternoon at the supermarket; all it takes is a shift in consciousness to finally see what has been there all along. It’s surprising, and at the same time, very much unsurprising.

And kids, this is something you can try for yourself at home, or in your own local shops. Just pay attention while you pay at the till – how many realities can you spot, and how far along the spectrum can you sense?

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