Refections on attention and trust
The power of attention
One of our greatest assets and inner resources is our attention. What we give our attention to and what quality our attention is greatly infuences the quality of our life and well-being. An attention that is open, warm and unbiased helps us see clearly and deeply. If it is narrow, judgmental and cold, we get trapped in habitual and negative patterns of thinking and perceiving that keep going in circles. The harsh and unforgiving voice of the Inner Critic is a powerful example of this.
My suffering is special
When I began therapy I remember believing that I was particularly wounded and traumatized, that my sufering was somehow special. Fortunately, since my therapist was an old hand and had seen much worse, he did not buy into it and just padded me on the back, saying: ‚Don’t worry, this is middle-of-the-road stuf!‘ I remember the distinct feeling of disappointment. Looking back I fnd it amusing. Imagine you go to a doctor and after examing you, he says: ‚You are not sick. You are reasonably healthy.‘ Would you not be happy? Sometimes we hold on to our sufering and don’t want to let it go. Our wounds become our identity that defne us.
Going through and moving on
Recently I listened to a radio interview with a psychologist who had been working with survivors of a terrorist attack. He reported that after a year of therapy some continued to sufer greatly and had difculty getting on with their life. They were stuck in feelings of rage, blame and negativity, feeling that the authorities had not done enough to prevent the attack and failed to take good care of them afterwards. Other survivors had recovered well. What greatly helped them was their ability to not only process trauma but also to look ahead and to move on, to open themselves to the possibilities that life still offered them. We can be acutely aware of the pains we have sufered in childhood, the shortcomings of our parents or the injustices in our life. However, if our attention continues to only focus on those aspects, it traps us in being a victim – and all too often we get stuck in feelings of helplessness. In the process of confronting our demons and healing our pain, we sometimes lose sight of the opportunities and goodness in our life.
Letting go of resistance
Many years ago I attended a month retreat in Southern India. For some reason I had set my goal on spiritual awakening. Every morning I would get up before the others and begun practising. I had some beautiful experiences where my consciousness shifted. I sat under a tree and was one with all that surrounded me: the leaves, the wind, the evening sky. The absence of desire brought deep peace to me. To want absolutely nothing was delicious. To my disappointment, the next morning my conditioned mind took charge again – and with it came lots of desires and lots of ego, but no awakening. My teacher, a soft-spoken, kind and patient Indian gentleman noticed my excessive willfulness and told me not to meditate outside of the ofcial schedule. I was obsessed chasing enlightenment. One day I complained to him that his strategy was not working because I was still not awakened. He took me aside, gave me a stern look and began scolding me. From his tone of voice I could hear he was irritated and had enough. He said: ‚Your life is guided by the Divine, everyone here can see it. You are like a prince behaving like a beggar.‘ He kept pounding me with powerful words trying to get past the thick layers of my ego. It was one of those moments where the ego realised it was exposed and no longer in charge, so it took a back seat. I really trusted this teacher and the place in his heart he was speaking from. I became very quiet and listened attentively. He went on and on. After what seemed like a very long time he suddenly got up and walked away.
I just sat there. It was a pleasant afternoon, the scorching sun had cooled down and there was a sense of peace in the air. I looked around and saw that my friends had gathered in the shade under a big mango tree. They were chatting. Joyfully I got up and walked towards them. Something was diferent. The commentary in my head had taken a break and there was a sense of lightness and efortlessness in me. I was really glad to be with my friends and together we walked over to the main building, joining a large gathering that was held in a beautiful open-air setting. By now it was evening, the mosquitos had disappeared and the moon was shining brightly. I found a spot on the lawn and sat down for the meditation. Soon after the meditation began, my body dissappeared. Not the felt sense of my body, but the body itself. It was gone. With my inner eye I gazed down at myself and all I found was light and space. Only that. Towards the end of the meditation I watched my body consciousness coming back, literally fying through the air towards me, settling back where it had always been. My mind made nothing out of it, no story, no interpretation, no big deal, not even a ‚Wow, what was that?!‘
The following days felt like falling into bliss. The sense of myself as the one steering the boat, manipulating my environment to maximize happiness and minimize discomfort faded into the background. I kept falling and falling, falling out of the prison I had made for myself. There was no resistance to what is, nothing needed to be changed, improved or secured. For the frst time in my life I truly trusted. I trusted every moment and experience that was given to me. I no longer felt like the main actor in my life but rather like a silent loving witness. No thoughts about me and my desires, no moment towards an imagined better version of reality. This lasted for maybe six weeks. Looking back it was the happiest I have ever been. The talk my teacher gave me had opened my eyes. I discovered for myself the power of trusting in life and of letting go of my ideas of how things should be. When we truly open ourselves to what is an immense pool of energy gets freed up and life takes on a diferent intensity. As exquisite as this opening had been, I never tried to reproduce it because I always knew it wouldn’t work. However, it made me realise how precious and truly transforming such fundamental trust is. And it became like an open question for me as to what helps us to fnd and connect with it. In my experience the frst step, as so often, was to observe the absence of trust in myself, to go right into this experience of not-trusting and to become intimately familiar with it. I need to genuinely accept my fear and mistrust, otherwise those qualities only get reinforced. In such moments I can ask myself: Is it really true what my mind tells me, that I should be afraid? I can then begin to soften the tight grip of fear on my heart and body and allow myself to relax into this moment, into being fully present. That itself can be transformative.
Being aware of what is already good
Seekers often tend to focus on what is painful and difcult, the work that still lies ahead of them, the wounds not yet healed, steps not yet taken. This can feel discouraging and it distorts our view of our life. From time to time we need to remind ourselves of the path we have already traveled, the relative freedom we have gained, the maturity we have achieved, the pain we have healed. A loving recognition of our spirit and appreciation for our commitment and hard inner work gives us joy, strength and inspiration to keep going. Maturity means responsibility We can open our eyes to the many blessings that surround us – and the power and beauty that shines through us, at least in moments. We may seek God or Spirit but often fail to notice when God is appearing to us and uses us as a vehicle, in a moment of kindness, sensitivity, generosity, clarity, strength, courage, honesty, compassion, brilliance, stillness … . As long as we insist that we are hopelessly confused, unenlightened and neurotic, our attention remains contracted and biased. We limit ourselves by the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. These stories hold us back and we use them to deny our responsibility. But when we acknowledge our strength and potential, we may ask ourselves: What are we going to do with it? Waste it? Or use it to create positive changes in our life and in the world. We begin to sense an obligation to no longer hold back, but to wholeheartedly and courageously make our contribution.
What do we love
There is tremendous power in connecting with what we love – and expressing it. The most powerful and infuential people were those who felt passionate and loving about what they wanted to change. Mahatma Gandhi was not against the British, he was for the independence of India. Martin Luther King was for the equal rights of the Afro-American people, he was not against White people. Their power lay in connecting with what they were for, not what they were against. Had they only connected with what they wanted to get rid of, inequality, poverty, discrimination etcetera, their actions would have not been as powerful. Likewise we can put our attention to what we love and the changes we want to make, both inside us as well as in the world. When we engage our inner work, what motivates us? What are we working towards, rather than: what do we want to get rid of? This is a powerful shift in the way we relate to our experiences and pains. And it makes our eforts more efective. Sometimes at the beginning of a meditation, I ask myself: Why are you really doing this? What are you trying to fnd through meditation? What was the initial spark when at the age of 16 you sat down to meditate the very frst time? This helps me connect with my deepest aspiration and longing and go beyond the ego’s desire to simply feel good. This connecting with what we love we can apply in any area of our daily life, in our relationship, in our work.
Controlling versus trusting
When we observe ourselves at any moment we realise that in fact we have no control over what arises in our minds and hearts. I have learned this in meditation. The harder I try to make my mind peaceful the more distracting thoughts appear. Painful emotions like anger, fear or jealousy arise despite eforts to resist or suppress them. The truth is: we have no control over what we experience. And why should we?! Gaining control over our inner world cannot be the goal of the spiritual quest since the wish for control is essentially born out of fear, a sign that we neither trust ourselves nor life itself. We cannot control our experience but we do have a choice as to what we give our attention – which thoughts we follow and which beliefs we nourish in ourselves, which qualities we use as our guiding stars. For myself, I only have to turn inwards to fnd the answer: I know how good it feels when I trust and love. My body softens and my heart opens.