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Paying Attention

Originally printed in the September - October 2003 issue of Quest magazine.
Citation: Bland, Betty. "Paying Attention." Quest  91.5 (SEPTEMBER - OCTOBER 2003):162-163.

By Betty Bland

Betty BlandMost of us have heard about the formation of a pearl in an oyster by an irritant such as a grain of sand. From this example, an analogy is often drawn for our own lives, in which the traumas of life can be the irritants that bring about the formation of the pearls of spirit within our own beings.

The pain and suffering of life, or dukka, as mentioned in Buddhist teachings, is not a favorite subject. We don’t like to think of what Shakespeare called the “uses of adversity” (in Midsummer Night’s Dream) until we find ourselves in a painful situation. Then, as we cast about for rhyme or reason, we might use the pearl analogy to find some comfort. (“This medicine tastes so terrible it is bound to be good for me.”) More often, however, we tend to use this analogy when comforting others rather than applying such insight to our own difficulties.

Ah, there’s the rub. It is no fun to sit with the pain with full attention; yet sitting with the problem, paying close attention to the experience and its associations with our past is the necessary elixir. When we have problems, we might do any of several things. We can pretend there is nothing wrong, but by doing so we shut out our awareness, creating a reservoir of unrecognized anguish that either explodes in our relationships with others or results in the inward implosion of depression. Or instead of blocking, we can end up obsessing over the situation, continuously rehashing and strengthening its hold on ourselves.

One of the heart’s first impulses is to clamp tightly shut against the irritation. Defensive walls go up; offensive, prickly behavior blocks out all who might support us emotionally or be a mirror through which we might gain insight. Like an earthworm reacting to a salty fingertip, the heart retreats quickly into its recesses of heavy darkness rather than facing the possibility of being brought out into the light of conscious attention. Now, for an earthworm that is a healthy fight/flight reflex, but for us two-leggeds of complex psychological nature, whose souls long for the sun, it is a tragic reaction resulting in a continuation of pain and counterproductive behavior.

An essential element in our spiritual growth is finding a way to open the shell around our hearts—but not just any opening. The trick is to open to the light of intuition—through calm,dispassionate observation, rather than staying caught in the whirlwind of our emotional reactions. In this process we have to be careful to look with a quietly intuitive perception that allows us to see things as they really are. All too often we might mistakenly view our remembering, rehashing, and reminding others as attempts to open ourselves to clarity and awareness. But these patterns are the very substance of the tightly shut shell within which we go around and around, thinking we must be making progress.

Equally imprisoning is the pretense that there is no pain and no shell. We can say, grimacing through gritted teeth, “Everything is rosy. Can’t you see me smiling?” Very often we might not realize what this line of defense does to ourselves and to others. We might even feel quite proud of ourselves that we are such cheerful martyrs! Yet this tactic not only locks that shell down tightly, it also makes that carefully crafted shell invisible to ourselves so that we are oblivious to the hurt our reactions inflicted on others.

Have you ever had a bad day that you just wanted to be able to discuss with a friend? You didn’t want them to climb mountains or slay dragons for you, but you just wanted them to pay attention to you with a sympathetic ear. In so doing, they were actually supporting you as you began processing the event and its implications in your life.

Although it is as familiar as our breathing, consciousness has many complexities. The ordinary waking consciousness in which most of us function is the level where the irritations begin and continue to grow. On the other hand, at a deeper level of our consciousness resides the watcher within, our inner or higher self. This is the level of the attention payer, the healer, the pearl maker.

The only way to open our shell is to relax our tight grip and allow it to open from within. Instead of running from the difficulty, or continuously inflicting grief upon ourselves and others, we can stop, take a deep breath, and say to ourselves, “There must be a better way.” In that moment of inquiry lies the beginning of hope. Something from the depths of our being, which has been watching and waiting all along, responds with hope and assurance. At first it is only a glimmer, but with attention it will grow. Focused awareness can ferret out those seeds of distress and heal them with clear insight.

Little by little we can learn to trust the presence of this light as we walk through the inevitable difficulties. We don’t have to shut ourselves tightly up, obsessively repeat the scenario, or pretend that nothing is wrong. We can look into the difficulties until they yield a great blessing of insight. Through every difficulty we can find a tool or key that will enable us to open the door to the deeper parts of ourselves where our true nature, a reflection of the divine, abides.

As it is said in the little spiritual guidebook At The Feet Of The Master, written by Krishnamurtiwhen he was quite young:

You must trust yourself. You say you know yourself too well? If you feel so, you do not know yourself; you only know the weak outer husk, which has fallen often into the mire. But you—the real you—you are a spark of God’s own fire, and God, who is Almighty, is in you, and because of that there is nothing that you cannot do if you will. (p. 55)

With this kind of confidence, we are able to relax our anxious minds and doubting hearts enough toallow our shells of defense to begin to open, and then to fall away altogether. The source of healing was there all along and it was only our own insecurity that kept our consciousness shut too tightly to find it. Focused awareness will gradually transform our world and our perceptions of it into an iridescent beauty. Because we dare to face a problem rather than close it out, our insight can create understanding and compassion. Our discomfort will become a pearl of blessing.

May our pearls shine for the benefit of all.