The Art of Paying Attention

Whenever I hear about a personal injury or accident, the description is almost always followed by a disclaimer such as “It was something stupid . . .” or “I was not paying attention”.  One of the goals of both Yoga and Pilates is to promote awareness of how your own body works and to encourage attention to the details of movement.  This may not always be as easy as it sounds, but can be accomplished through practice.  That’s what our classes are all about – helping you set aside the time to practice moving mindfully.  The more you practice, the more your focus and self-knowledge will improve.  Then as you bring these techniques into your everyday life, you may find that by paying attention your movement may seem easier.  Perhaps you will even be able to avoid injury or at least recover more quickly.  And maybe you will even gain a greater appreciation for your miraculous ability to move and breathe.  We are all fallible humans so this process is not likely to be foolproof, but improvement is always possible.

In  the article  “Attention Means Attention” in Tricycle Magazine,  Charlotte Joko Beck, Zen teacher, author and founder of the Ordinary Mind Zen School, says:

“Every moment in life is absolute in itself. That’s all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment . . . So when we don’t pay attention to each little this, we miss the whole thing.”

It doesn’t matter what the contents of the moment are. . . each moment is absolute. If we could totally pay attention, we would never be upset. If we’re upset, it’s axiomatic that we’re not paying attention.

Our problems arise when we subordinate this moment to something else, our self-centered thoughts: not just this moment, but what I want. We bring to the moment our personal priorities, all day long. And so our troubles arise.

When attention to the present moment falters and we drift into some version of “I have to have it my way,” a gap is created in our awareness of reality as it is, right now. Into that gap pours all the mischief of our life. We create gap after gap after gap, all day long. The point of practice is to close those gaps, to reduce the amount of time that we spend being absent, caught in our self-centered dream.”

So if you are tempted not to come to class or to skip your practice, one way to motivate yourself might be to remember that all of us are practicing together.  We all need help eliminating the gaps in our awareness.  Each day is a new opportunity to start again.  Knowing that others are also working at this can be comforting and strengthening.   When you focus on  your practice, you are not just improving yourself, but also helping all of those around you – simply by paying attention.

Getting Stuck In the Middle of Constant Change

Just when we think we’re getting a break from the intensity of winter weather, it returns.  Such is the nature of winter.  January and February can seem like the longest two months of the year.  Yet there is constant change.  Each day there are a couple more minutes of daylight.  At first it may be difficult to notice, but it is happening.  Even in the dead of winter, there is just enough change to alter shadows and transform the snow into ice.

The other day as I did a rare stint on my treadmill I watched the sun come up over the hill in front of our house.  I had this idea in my head that the scene from this window was stationary – not much happening.  How wrong I was.  The play of light and shadow across the lawn as the sun rose was a steady stream of action.  Just when I thought everything looked great and I just wanted it to stay that way so I could appreciate the beauty, it all changed.  The scene was completely fluid, each landscape dissolving into the next in a matter of seconds.

With the paradox of constant change being the only thing we can really count on in this life, maybe you might find that you have trouble maintaining your practice through all of these ups and downs.  Here are a few words of motivation from Tibetan Buddhist nun and author, Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron, that also contain the hint of Spring:

When you plant seeds in the garden, you don’t dig them up every day to see if they have sprouted yet. You simply water them and clear away the weeds; you know that the seeds will grow in time. Similarly, just do your daily practice and cultivate a kind heart. Abandon impatience and instead be content creating the causes for goodness; the results will come when they’re ready.

This can apply to anything you are trying to accomplish that takes some time.  You may not see results right away and this can be frustrating.  Especially if you hit a plateau and feel that your progress has stopped.  But if you just keep at it “the results will come when they’re ready”.

Bernie Glassman, a teacher of Zen Buddhism, puts it another way:

. . . we get so attached to some end result that we can’t function. We need help just to move on, only life doesn’t wait. There’s a little ditty that sort of sums this up.

Row, row, row your boat, gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily. Life is but a dream.

Imagine that you’re rowing down a stream and you’re trying to figure out how to do it. Do I first row with the right oar and then with the left, or is it the other way around? What does my shoulder do, what does my arm do?

It’s like Joe, the centipede with a hundred legs, trying to figure out which leg to move first. He can’t get anywhere, just like the person in the rowboat. And while he’s hung up with all those questions, the stream is pulling him on and on. So you want to row, row, row your boat—gently. Don’t make a whole to-do about it. Don’t get down on yourself because you’re not an expert rower; don’t start reading too many books in order to do it right. Just row, row, row your boat gently down the stream.

So when you’re tempted to blow off your exercise practice – or whatever routine you are trying to establish for yourself – because you feel like you’re not getting anywhere, just remember that the stream is still moving.  And so is the light.  Be gentle with yourself and just do what you can until the way becomes clear again.  You were motivated once and that resolve and enthusiasm can again return if you let it.  Although you may feel stuck right now, if you have a little patience, everything will change.  That’s something you can count on.