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Elegant Life

Cultivate Attention

If I were a superhero (and, let’s face it, that’s a proposition I’ve spent more time and energy considering than the average person), my archnemesis would be a nefarious duo; one villain in a bland gray skinsuit, the other in a chaotic swirl of color: Depression and Anxiety. D. and A. They would alternate attacks to render all my amazing superhero powers as useless as Clark Kent chained to a hunk of kryptonite.

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Depression. Anxiety. They’ve become buzzwords. In certain circles, it’s almost cool to have them. In this circle you medicate, in that circle you meditate, in other circles you CBT or tap or yoga or clear chakras or Reiki or raw food or some combination thereof. What to do do do to get rid of the stuckness, the incoherence. To move on.

Many of those things are great. Many of them are in my toolbox and have helped me.

But.

Both anxiety and depression, for me anyway, involve a collapse of attention. Anxiety strikes; my attention collapses into frenetic, mindless worry, a constant ringing of alarm bells. Depression strikes; my attention collapses into dull paralysis, a walking coma. Both feel awful.

Getting rid of Anxiety, getting rid of Depression: these become ways of pushing through, instead of releasing obstacles. I don’t want to look at them; I certainly don’t want to sit down to tea with them. I just want to blast my way in, guns blazing, and eradicate them from the multiverse. Wipe them off every planet, every timeline.

This is the normal way. It’s the way I’ve been operating ever since I stopped ignoring their presence entirely and acknowledged their existence and power. But Pema Chödrön — a superhero in her own right — explains another path:

The peacock eats poison and that’s what makes the colors of its tail so brilliant. …the poison becomes the source of great beauty and joy; poison becomes medicine.

Whatever you do, don’t try to make the poisons go away, because if you’re trying to make them go away, you’re losing your wealth, along with your neurosis.

In this approach, I don’t try to get rid of my archnemeses. I sink into them. I open to them.

And let’s be honest. At one level, this “eating the poison” approach is batshit crazy.

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I didn’t sit down with the intention to write about anxiety and depression. My intention was simply to write an entry titled “Cultivate Attention,” one of my three guiding principles for the coming year. But everything I wrote felt contrived, or purely conceptual, and none of it, well, got my attention.

In trying to find a good thread for this post, I asked: where is it most important for me to “cultivate attention”? And my mind went immediately to my biggest battle; and I started out by framing attention as the key to winning the battle. An hour ago, I still thought attention was my weapon.

But a part of me was wiser. Because a month ago, when I wrote out these guiding principles, I didn’t write “sharpen attention” or “wield attention” or “load an automatic clip into attention.”

Cultivate.

A gardener, kneeling in the soil, dirty and sweaty and satisfied. Working with the earth, the plants, the sun, the wind, the rain. Participating. Growing.

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“Whatever you do, don’t try to make the poisons go away.” It dawns on me that my adversarial relationship with D. and A. is ultimately a doomed approach. Not because they’re stronger than I am, but because they are me.

Huh. I never quite got that until I wrote it out just now.

Huh.

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Stop.
Breathe.
Close your eyes.

Where is your attention this moment? Is it utterly focused on these words, or is it fragmented? Little shards of mind dwelling on worries, hopes, ideas, pains, pleasures?

What is your attention? Where does it reside? How do “you” (whatever “you” may be) direct it? What watches the watcher?

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Lately I’m more interested in the physics of attention — how it works, how to cultivate it — than the metaphysics, but I like to contemplate the philosophical questions now and again. They remind me of the grand mystery of attention, of existence itself.

Attention isn’t a purely mental action, you know. Not by half. It involves your entire being. Your senses; your subconscious connection to your internal organs; your hard-wired awareness of living beings around you; the rich microbiome that comprises 90% of the cell population of the biomass you call “you.” It involves cognitive capacity, emotional states, sensory inputs. Your family, your culture, your gender, and what you had for lunch.

Attention, my friend, is a many-splendored thing.

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“Resting attention” is not at all the same as thinking about something. It’s the complete opposite of ruminating, fixating, obsessing, or psychologizing. It’s an action; it’s something you learn by doing. You can read about it the same way you can read about flying a plane. But I for one am not crawling into a winged vehicle of any kind with a pilot who hasn’t logged a ton of actual flight time.

I’m learning how to rest my attention on anxiety and depression, instead of battling them. I haven’t been winning the battle, so maybe it’s time to lay down my sword and take up the plow. Perhaps they have messages for me; perhaps they are powerful parts of me that haven’t matured; perhaps they just need some watering and fertilizer now and then.

Pema Chödrön says “all this messy stuff is your richness.” With everything — anxiety, depression, the fun stuff, the scary stuff, the boring day-to-day stuff — I want to dig in, to cultivate attention, to be fully present with everything and everyone I encounter. A peaceful superhero. Fully awake, fully engaged.

How to do this? Here’s my strategy for the coming year:

  • Slow down. Eat slower. Talk slower. Listen slower. Go for rambling walks. Sit in cafes without a book and watch life unfold. Handwritten letters instead of emails. Walk instead of drive. Stovetop instead of microwave. Do things at a human pace, and engage deeply.
  • Speed up. Slowing down is great when it helps me shift out of mindless automation, but cultivating attention is not about living life in slow motion. Rapid activity requires sharp attention. Winnow email down to “inbox 0” as fast as possible. Take a fast shower. Zip through the grocery store in 10 minutes. Put everything irrelevant out of mind and see how fast I can cross the finish line. Find the activities where sprinting is useful and go.
  • Breathe. Ye gods but oxygen is important. The physiological benefits are well documented (e.g. NPR, Forbesresearch studies on pranayama), and the literal meaning of most traditional terms for “life force” is “breath” (e.g. qi, prana, ruach, spirit). A deep breath is a reset button, a moment to return to center.
  • Scale back. I’ll talk about this more when I tackle “Reduce Debt.” Saying “no” (to purchases, to commitments, to activities) creates more space to rest attention on everything that remains.

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Strategies are great. I love strategies. I love checklists, to-do lists, and color-coded notebooks. Very practical. Very useful.

But ultimately, attention is an experience, and words are mere hints. I know the moments in my life where attention has blossomed, sometimes in very inhospitable soil. Palm trees on a day when I gloried in newfound independence. A moment of clarity in which I saw that I was being crazy. A summer sunset, hazy and delicious. The coolness of my father’s hand in mine when he died. The crunch of grape nuts at breakfast.

This year, the foremost intention is: Cultivate attention. Get down in the dirt. Eat the poison.

Get my hands on the yoke of life and learn to fly.