Chalo Garcia, Sunset View from Jaco Beach Costa Rica, Unsplash
We spoke last time of following the golden thread of our Attention. Why is it so important? Because asking myself, “Where is my attention right now?” is the same as asking “Where am I?” It offers a direct experience of becoming present to my life. Whenever I stop what I’m doing—as I let go of holding onto whatever has captured my attention, I receive impressions of myself as I am. Then I can choose to focus my mind completely on my aim.
The problem that surfaces each time I vow to do it is my total distractability. How to stay in contact with that golden thread more of the time? Because as my mother liked to say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would ride!” Longing for change isn’t going to help until thought and heart join together to lead me into action. Only then can longing help me remember my need for a conscious attention in order to act on my wish.
So as I bring my best thought to the challenge of becoming present, it looks like the very first step is remembering to try! Hard to accept that we often sleepwalk, but whenever we realize how habit tends to dominate our lives, it offers a reminder of urgency for change—a deep inner call for a Radical Shift. Then we can choose where to turn our attention rather than have it taken from us.
Gurdjieff suggested we invent “alarm clocks” for ourselves—reminders that can wake us up from the automatic thoughts and movements we tend to submerge in. That sounds pretty easy. I have an egg-timer on my desk which I set so as not to be mesmerized by the computer. When the alarm goes off, I’m in a different state, usually annoyed by the interruption, and certainly not grateful for being waked up. Hello, Other Side of Patty! However, for those who accept to be shocked awake, there are many kinds of alarm clocks.
For starters, P. D. Ouspensky suggested in In Search of the Miraculous that we follow the second hand of our watch as we try to remain aware. If you focus all the attention of your body/mind on the movement of the second hand without allowing any passing thoughts to interrupt your concentration, how long can you remain present? For many people, the mind wanders off in search of something “more interesting” in less than a minute.
What a shock to those who think they are in charge of their thinking! However, this exercise has value far beyond proving we can’t focus as long as we thought we could. The state of awareness it can produce is far more important than the humbling experience of not being able. If you try it, notice how your readiness—alertness to anything going on—has increased, along with a sense of gratitude for the new inner space you find yourself in. Are you frustrated but much more awake? More present in spite of the sense of not being able to do it for long?
Here’s another challenge. Walk down a busy street or mall. Decide that for two minutes (or one block) you’ll refuse to let your attention be distracted by other people or colorful store windows. Keep your attention on the movements of your body/mind as you walk, feet pressing into the ground with each step, hips swinging along in nature’s rhythm. Then, for the next two minutes or the next block, allow yourself to look at everything that attracts you, observing how your attention gets pulled in every direction. Alternate these two experiences several times. How hard is it to stay focused on yourself walking? How easy to let the attention flow out toward whatever distracts you? Again, once you forgive yourself for not being who you thought you were, notice your awakened state. More centered in yourself?
Here’s a surefire wake-up call: Turn your attention consciously on whatever actual work you are doing with your hands. Stay focused on their intentional movements as they follow your orders. Concentrate your mind on them, whether you are tapping at a cell phone, making dinner, or folding the laundry. Resist any wandering thoughts that may surface as you work. D. T. Suzuki, who brought Zen to the west, famously said, “a man learns to think with his hands.”
You could also focus on your feet as you move around doing your chores. As you walk along the street, or even down the hall, notice the sensation on the bottoms of your feet. Feel them press into the ground with each step you take. Wherever you are standing, walking, or sitting, you are connected to Mother Earth—and Her huge electro-magnetic dynamo. Tune into it. Sense the pull of gravity downward, but stay in your feet long enough to feel the upward surge of energy as you press down with each step.
Standing in line at the store counter or bus stop, acknowledge that, like that of a tree, your energy flows in two directions—both down through you following the law of gravity, and upward from below. The more sensation you can achieve of your feet-on-the-ground, the more aware you will become of that flow in both directions. It may help to think of the sap rising to nourish the leaves of a tree, or visualize the heavy blossom of the sunflower as it sways above its tall and very thin stalk.
Add a mental exercise as you walk where you need to go: Begin to count your steps in rhythm: 1, 2, 3, 4 — 4, 3, 2, 1. Proceed to 2, 3, 4, 5, etc. and once you get to 12, 11, 10, 9, start counting backward in the same way. You may find it both demanding and irritating to maintain your count and focus on your feet at the same time, but after a few minutes you’ll probably feel more alive, more present. You’ll discover a new relationship between the equipment with which you think and the body in which you live.
Another time, notice how your attention is taken—whether you like it or not—by everything from wandering thoughts to outer distractions. Search out the places where you are tense. Jaw clenched? Tummy roiling? Whenever we attempt to release some of the tension in any part of the body, more presence is available for the moment we are living through.
Another major key to becoming present is experiencing our own breathing rhythms. It brings us home in ourselves. Imagine yourself at the beach, listening to the ocean waves, and watching them roll up on the beach and back into the sea.
And, at any moment, reach out for your own golden thread. It’s always there, waiting to lead you out of the labyrinth of habit, and toward Reality.