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The Power of Attention

A few days ago, a friend asked me what I do for fun. She wasn't the first person to ask me that question, and I'm sure she wont be the last. Of course, I know what I like to do for fun (hiking, swimming, traveling, dancing...), but that's not what she was asking. She was asking what I actually do for fun each day. That question casts a light on my drive to be productive and feel successful, which is at times healthy but, at other times, is a false refuge that keeps me distracted from feeling what needs to be felt. Over the weekend, I did have fun as I picked raspberries and snapped photos with my new camera lens. Yes, I actually have to work at fun and relaxing! Keeping with the theme of last week's negativity bias, I tried to linger longer in the felt sense of fun and absorb all the wholesome nutrients it had to offer.

For most of my life, I've had a steady diet fixated on aversion, imperfections, disappointments, past sufferings etc. I can understand the causes and conditions that shaped my current state of mind, but if I want to establish healthier habits, then I actually have to bolster my intention with some action. Over 2,500 years ago, the Buddha said, "Whatever you frequently think and ponder upon, that will become the inclination of your mind." And, more recently, Rick Hanson shared his observation, "The mind takes it shapes from what it rests upon," which is now supported by research.

Of course, like any habit, some part of me resists the practice of taking in the good. And, I'll speak more to that in a separate post later this week. Once I observed this feeling of fun I tried to stay with it for a few breaths so that it could be fully integrated into my nervous system. However, in less than a minute my attention swerved away from fun and landed on the ache in my neck that had begun to wind its way down into my shoulder. Then, I was pulled to the gnawing anxiety in my chest that loves to remind me I have yet to secure an agent to help me publish my book. At least, I was able to observe these thoughts and even realize when I got caught in their sticky web. The beauty of having a meditation practice is that it's not goal oriented. It's a practice without an end. You recognize when you're lost in thought and return to the here and now.

Writing poems but especially taking photos have always helped me return to the here and now. When I took the photo of the dragonfly below, I immediately recalled one of my favorite quotes from Mary Oliver. She writes, "Attention is the beginning of devotion." In the wake of my positive neuroplasticity training, I saw that quote from a different angle and turned it into a reflection question - If attention is the beginning of devotion, then what am I devoting myself to? Am I devoting myself to things I cannot change? Especially, things I cannot change that occurred in the past. Am I devoting myself to being miserable by constantly fixating on body aches and what-if fears? Can I let myself embrace the mystery of not knowing? Can I rest my attention on the multitude of simple joys that I take for granted? It's a curious question and one that continues to call for my attention throughout the days.

I still remember the surge of tingles that flooded my body when I came across these words by William Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell as an undergraduate. He wrote, "If the doors of perception were cleansed everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite." While I may struggle to give an honest answer when asked what I do each day for fun, I often rely on the aforementioned quote to help me answer the question, why do you meditate? What we place our attention on colors our perceptions. And yet we often make decisions and develop a sense of self based on these perceptions.

This week I will post some suggestions on how to work with resistance, which may creep up, when we practice taking in the good.

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