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“It’s not happiness that makes us grateful but gratefulness that makes us happy.” – Br. David Steindl Rast

The Power of Attention + Do You Make Your Life a Problem?

This morning I am feeling grateful for my many teachers over the past 20 years pointing to this simple fact: My attention is one of my most powerful tools. How I use my attention literally creates my experience of the world. After years and years, I’m getting it in a deep way.

Like last night, as Carl and Mesa and I walked off our front porch out into the rain to be amazed by a huge, full double rainbow in the eastern sky. Wow. Dazzling!

It was like none I’d ever seen before – at the bottom of the lower rainbow, the blue-indigo-violet just kept going on – did you see it? It looked like there was an extra stripe of violet and green below the lowest purple.

Extraordinary beauty in the sky, for just a brief time – it felt like a miracle to witness it! And as we stood there, getting sprinkled on, Carl and I kept looking at each other wondering – why do people keep rushing by? Why isn’t anyone else stopping to look? (Locals – did you see it?!) We felt so lucky to be standing there taking in this gift of a moment. (Here’s a photo of a different double rainbow we were blessed with after a retreat with Tenzin Wangyal last fall in Crestone.)

How often do I miss things like this – the little miracles always unfolding in the world – because I’m using my attention in other ways? Like being absorbed in email, or mulling over my very-important-and-serious to-do list, or using my attention to rehash (again) some yucky interaction that happened a few years ago. It actually strikes me as funny. Why do I do this?

The more I work with embodied practices and the honing of my attention, the more I’m amazed. In any moment, even the really challenging ones – there’s some beauty to be found – when I’m open to it.

A question Russell Delman asked in one of our training weeks was this: “Do you make your life a problem? How do you use your attention when you do this? If you do, how long do you keep it a problem?” It’s one of those excellent questions that has been haunting me in the best way.

Like when I’ve just straightened a room and Mesa dumps a big bucket of toys everywhere. Or we’re in a battle of wills over something like getting him in the carseat – and it feels so serious and heavy and “big deal” – and then it occurs to me – “I’m making my life a problem.” Oh yeah. And suddenly, I can take the whole thing much more lightly. It doesn’t mean he gets in the carseat any quicker, but there’s a sense of lightening up about the whole endeavor, and even holding my own sense of frustration with care and kindness.

Poems are like little doorways for me – to shift my attention in a way that opens me to seeing the incredible blessing of being alive. Here’s an old favorite from Mary Oliver which is touching my heart this morning. I hope it touches yours as well.

Such Singing in the Wild Branches

It was spring
and finally I heard him
among the first leaves-

then I saw him clutching the limb

in an island of shade
with his red-brown feathers
all trim and neat for the new year.
First, I stood still

and thought of nothing.
Then I began to listen.
Then I was filled with gladness-
and that’s when it happened,

when I seemed to float,
to be, myself, a wing or a tree –
and I began to understand
what the bird was saying,

and the sands in the glass
stopped
for a pure white moment
while gravity sprinkled upward

like rain, rising,
and in fact
it became difficult to tell just what it was that was singing –
it was the thrush for sure, but it seemed

not a single thrush, but himself, and all his brothers,
and also the trees around them,
as well as the gliding, long-tailed clouds
in the perfectly blue sky – all, all of them

were singing.
And, of course, yes, so it seemed,
so was I.
Such soft and solemn and perfect music doesn’t last

for more than a few moments.
It’s one of those magical places wise people
like to talk about.
One of the things they say about it, that is true,

is that, once you’ve been there,
you’re there forever.
Listen, everyone has a chance.
Is it spring, is it morning?

Are there trees near you,
and does your own soul need comforting?
Quick, then – open the door and fly on your heavy feet; the song
may already be drifting away.

Grateful,

Erin

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