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Paying Attention
by James Bryer, Ph.D.

Presence in the Present

I’m walking Mo, the family dog.  The cool, crisp night air caresses and invigorates.  I’m thirsty, and the air feels like a cool drink.  Crickets merrily chirp. The moon is heading west already, a bit over half full, shining brightly on a near cloudless night.  Tree-leaf shadows form a canopy over the trail.  Mo sniffs here and there, tugs at the leash, urges me onward. She eagerly devours her experience, tasting and enjoying every morsel.  I, on the other hand, oblivious to the beauty of this night, busily fret about the looming deadline for this article.  Eventually, I awaken and realize the irony here.  It provokes a chuckle and invites me to appreciate the precious gift that is happening right now.

I miss so much of life because I’m somewhere else.  I rehearse the future: planning, predicting, worrying.  I relive the past, often with regret, conjuring “what-ifs” or imagining “do-overs”.  When I leave the present moment, I leave home.  I divide myself – I’m here, but not really here.  Each failure to offer my undivided attention to what’s here and now diminishes life.  (Think of rehearsing as “re-hearsing”, climbing back into a hearse).  Fortunately, each new moment delivers a fresh opportunity to experience the wholeness and vitality of being fully present, to be home wherever I go.

The virtue of paying attention deepens connections with ourselves, others, this planet and life itself.  It’s the interior dimension of showing up: what we do on the inside when we are fully present. We notice, we see, we listen to ourselves and others.  We accept and appreciate what we discover.  As I think about these activities and the virtue of paying attention, two qualities come into focus: Opening the eyes and softening the heart.

Opening the Eyes.

It’s not easy to see clearly.  Perception is clouded by filters that distort our vision.  For example, the filter of scarcity can keep us from seeing beauty and abundance, the truth that everything we need is right here.  The filter of unworthiness can blind us to the gifts we have and the gift we are.  The expectation of disappointment can trick us into believing others don’t care.

One morning several years ago, I dared to see my physical body more clearly.  Middle age spread was in full bloom.  My usual practice, when approaching a mirror, was to tighten my stomach, in the hope I’d appear in better shape.  Deciding to get real, I turned sideways to the mirror, relaxed my belly into its full ampleness and saw what was there.  Not a pretty sight, perhaps, but it was real.  Removing that filter of denial has opened new possibilities.

Like kids covering their eyes, we sometimes try to stay safe or comfortable by not paying attention.  We might bury or hide from feelings, because we don’t know what to do with them.  We might get so caught up in romantic infatuation that we miss important “red flags”, which come back to haunt us later.  Minimizing the magnitude of poverty, disease, hunger, injustice, abuse of power, cruelty and the harm we humans do to each other and to this planet can provide a temporary sense of comfort.  Deep down, though, we know that closing our eyes and creating illusions are not good ways to be safe.

Not paying attention is an act of separation.  Abstract talk about painful realities creates a distance and can be a way of sanitizing, and perhaps legitimizing, horrors.  In Vietnam, we spoke casually of  body counts and neutralizing the enemy.  “Gooks” and similar words allowed us to dehumanize and distance our foes.  Paying attention reminds us that we are connected.

As individuals, and perhaps as a nation, we pay more heed to the hurts we receive than to the hurts we inflict.  To open our eyes means to see in a balanced way and to be aware of the filters that screen and distort our perceptions.  For some of us, this balance means releasing the rosy filters that keep us from seeing the pain of the world and the hurtful consequences of our actions. For others, it means scrubbing those brown filters that darken and diminish, blinding us to the beauty that is in us and around us.

When I opened my eyes to the reality of my expanding belly, I moved quickly from awareness to judgment, from seeing my middle-aged body to loathing it.  How natural and automatic this process seems!  We move so quickly to an adversarial stance.  Even when working for positive changes, we use phrases like: overcoming fear, getting rid of shame, battling disease, fighting for peace, struggling for justice, declaring war on poverty, racism, or terrorism.

The adversarial stance creates conditions that inhibit growth and change.   When we harden to what we see, we prevent further seeing and limit our flexibility.  War seldom leads to lasting peace.  Hating doesn’t help.  After thirty years of professional practice, perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned is that if I want something to heal or grow, in myself or in another, I first have to approach it with compassion and love.

Softening the heart is a quiet, enormous courage that allows us to stay present with ourselves when we are in pain, with loved ones who are sick and dying, with relationships in distress, and with our grief and anger as a nation wounded by terrorism.  It allows us to stay present and connected, rather than closed and tunnel-visioned, so that creative possibilities and constructive solutions can be discovered.

To soften your heart, try breathing with a soft belly.  Breathe gently into the wound – the fear, the hurt, the anger.  Breathe deeply through the powerful impulses to fight or flee.  Allow the healing energy of the Universe to work its magic, so that your healing becomes a healing presence for others; your peace, a seed for peace everywhere.

Healing Power of Loving Attention

Angeles Arrien connects the virtue of paying attention with the healer archetype, a powerful and gentle inner presence.  In her words:  “Healers in all major traditions recognize that the power of love is the most potent healing force available to all human beings.  Effective Healers from any culture are those who extend the arms of love:  acknowledgment, acceptance, recognition, validation, and gratitude.”

I find it hard to overstate the healing power of undivided, loving attention.  As we deepen our capacity for compassionate clarity, as we look unflinchingly and lovingly at the world within and around us, with all its goofiness and grandeur, its beastliness and beauty, we create a spaciousness that invites transformation.  We come as close as we can to seeing with God’s eyes, the eyes of the Ultimate Healer.

Stay attuned.

© Copyright 2009 James Bryer, Ph.D.  All Rights Reserved.

Lionel Fisher
James Bryer, Ph.D.
is a psychologist, writer and spiritual teacher. Dr. James Bryer has immersed himself in the spiritual traditions of the East and West.  A psychotherapist for 35 years, James is co-founder of Processus, a private counseling agency in St. Cloud, where he now practices and where he developed the Connecting Program -- a series of classes, workshops and growth groups promoting spiritual and psychological health.

James has taught at five universities and has conducted workshops throughout the United States, in England and in Ireland.  Author of "Four Wisdoms: An Ethic for Everyday Life", he is currently finishing a book on the psychology and spirituality of relationship: 
"Softening to Love".

He is well-known for the gentle, engaging style he brings to teaching, counseling and retreat work.



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