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
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
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
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
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.
© Copyright 2009 James Bryer,
All Rights Reserved.
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
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
He is well-known for the gentle, engaging style he
brings to teaching, counseling and retreat work.
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