I recently participated in a three-day poetry festival, teaching a yoga & writing workshop, and stage managing the evening readings. My dear friend Melissa Tuckey, who co-founded the festival stayed with me — which all but guaranteed days bookmarked with coffee-or-wine conversations. She had recently launched Ghost Fishing, the first poetry anthology with “an eco-justice bent.” (See “what I’m reading” in my May newsletter for more.)
This 460-page book was a massive undertaking, bringing together scores of poets and poems and taking about five years to complete.
Over the course of her stay, Melissa and I spoke a lot about what it takes to carry out a project like this. (I think her making her home in a co-housing community with 300 acres of woods and meadows and gardens literally at her doorstep doesn’t hurt.)
Somewhere toward the top of the list is the ability to maintain focused attention over the long haul for both “tree” and “forest” work –the big picture of overarching themes, engaging poets from a diversity of background and thought, reading thousands of poems from living and dead writers, composing introductions to each section, and doing the nitpicky work of copyrights and edits.
Out loud, I doubted whether I had the capacity to pay attention in this way for literally years.
I know it’s not just me. We live in a world deeply enamored with “busy” as an adequate response to “how’s it going?” We stay busy and at the surface, getting by and barely getting along.
With busy, it’s impossible to be present to see creative – or loving – impulses through.
With busy, it’s impossible to be quietly content, with a half-smile lifting the edges of your brow.
And how can we not be busy with bells constantly chiming, alerting us to that which demands “immediate” attention, Eisenhower matrix distinguishing between urgent and important be damned.
Busy leaves us vulnerable to overwhelm, which makes our boundaries so porous as to become superfluous, which takes us to many possibilities, all not so helpful: out of present, drained, self-centered in our self-created misery, and dealing with chronic stress or worse – any of the illnesses that come with it.
Busy can boost our sense of self-worth, yes, but I know I’ve spent plenty of time being busy working on the wrong things. Not so particularly effective a strategy for leadership and social change.
To do the deep work that’s necessary with our earth and each other, we need love – and love doesn’t exist in half presence.
Thomas Merton wrote “To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence…”
So in the service of nonviolent presence, with Melissa as my muse (these ideas were gleaned from hours of our talks), here are three tips to make your mind less distracted so you can do the work in the world you need to.
(1) Pick an internal drishti to play with. In yoga, a “drishti” is a place to focus the gaze or attention. It’s a visual concentration exercise and has the same benefits as other concentration practices. AND: often the traditional drishti involves looking at places that crank up my neck. So: I’ve started to work more with internal drishtis – observing the kind of seer I am.
Marcel Proust said, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in seeing with new eyes.” Learning to notice our habitual ways of seeing the world – and changing that up – can be a practice of bringing more presence into your life.
You can think of this as internal alignment. Yoga encourages us to notice who’s behind our thoughts: the witness (or witness consciousness). What if we could align ourselves with a seer who sees the world in a loving way (as opposed to a cynical or busy one)?
In a beautiful short documentary called “Going Home,” Ram Dass shares how he aligns himself with the energy inside which is loving. He simply repeats the mantra “I am loving awareness.” When I’ve done this, it helps remind me that yes, there is a part of me that is small minded and can be terribly grumpy. And, it’s a relatively small part of me – we can call it the small self, or the ego, or the personality. Inside, I also have this visionary, expansive bad-ass, loving, patient, steady energy. You do too.
(2) Create space. One of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye, tells the story on one of my favorite podcasts of how one of her Japanese students introduced her to the concept of yutori. The student wrote that yutori “is a kind of living with spaciousness. For example, it’s leaving early enough to get somewhere so that you know you’re going to arrive early, so when you get there, you have time to look around.” The Japanese have taken this concept to their educational system which reduces both the amount of class time and the contents, so that there’s less pressure on very young children. It’s sometimes thought of as relaxed education.
Space and time being very much related, not just in Einsteins’s theory of relativity but in yoga and life, there are any number of ways that you can find a sense of spaciousness in addition to giving yourself enough time to get from point A to point B.
You can clean your room (seriously, your mom was right) – or anything you like, rearranging, recycling, regifting, and the like. Anything that gives you a sense of spaciousness in your external environment is usually helpful internally.
You can schedule your work tasks in 90 minute blocks and during that time, create no email/phone zones where you can really delve into planning or creative work. (There are lots of apps and browser extensions to help you put on “digital blinders.”)
You can create space at the beginning of meetings with a check in, a meditation, or just three breaths.
You can slow down your conversations and make room for thoughtful inquiry, listening, and reflection.
You can actually take breaks in your day to get outside and walk around (a cigaretteless smoking break, if you read last month’s blog)
(3) Finish what you start. Dandapani, a Hindu priest who is the darling of the Silicon Valley crowd, teaches that there is a clear distinction between awareness and mind. He writes “once you’ve understood that you are not the mind but rather you are pure awareness moving through different areas of the mind, then the next step is to control where awareness goes.”
Being aware of what you pay attention to can be super practical, according to Dandapani – just finish what you start. As in: you get up in the morning. Signal to your mind that you’re finished with sleeping by making your bed. You take the last bite of a delicious meal and give yourself a few minutes to digest, then up and at it: go and do the dishes. You see someone you adore and say you want to get together with them: just do it. Schedule it into your calendar. Build your capacity to pay attention by paying attention throughout your day.
I’ll be working with these myself this month, as I try to re-engage in my own writing practice — something that by necessity had to be put on the back burner. I’d love to hear from you — how do these work or do you have other favorites.