Greek Island

Pay Attention!

Life itself is our best teacher. She offers all the lessons we will ever need abundantly and without restraint. If we miss them the first time, they will be offered again and again until we are ready to learn.

Our part – the work of wholeness – is to be honest with ourselves and others, to pay careful attention to the messages we receive, to trust the process, and to be diligent in applying what we learn to our lives.

For most of us, the honesty part is the first hurdle. It’s so much more comfortable to ignore or deny the ways we let ourselves down. Our defenses are there for a reason. They protect us from knowing those truths that we were in fact unable to bear at a certain time in our lives. We create stories in our heads that help us endure until the time is right for the truth to emerge. We also deny and ignore aspects of ourselves that seemed unwelcome to important people in our early lives. This is how we survive. We build a self and a worldview that allow us to function adequately where we are.

But there comes a time when the defenses no longer work and when the story we’ve created is too small, too restrictive to carry us forward. We begin to see what we could not see before and we find that we can no longer bear the burden of dishonesty. The walls start to crumble and we begin to see truths that were hidden before. This can be terrifying or liberating or both at the same time. Still, we are called to shed the protective skin and there comes a time when we have no choice. Certain true things refuse to be denied any longer and we find that honesty is in fact the first step toward living the lives we were meant to live.

On this platform of honesty, we can begin to build our awareness and to pay attention to the messages and signs that come our way. The tiniest step toward greater authenticity frees hidden reserves of power and potential. If we aren’t busy trying not to know something, we have more energy to recognize precisely the messages life is sending our way. It takes enormous energy to maintain even the smallest deception, and that’s what we must avoid.

We must daily make the commitment to be as honest with ourselves as we possibly can be and to extend that same honesty outward to others. Courage is called for.

Once we begin to live a life based on honesty, we start to pay attention to what has passed us by before. We become alert to behaviors, patterns, yearnings, and intuitions that we may have missed. We can teach ourselves to attend to our inner selves, to our deepest longings, and to our greatest fears. These are teachers, and their lessons are essential. Thoughts, feelings, daydreams, night dreams, symptoms, symbols, and synergies begin to emerge as meaningful and beneficent. They bring unexpected gifts of expansion or coherence to our lives.

This paying attention is much broader and richer than one first imagines. It barely resembles what is so often referred to in popular culture as mindfulness, a general and newly fashionable term to refer to meditative practices. While there is no doubt that meditation has an important part to play in spiritual practice as well as healthful living, the sort of attention that is required for wholeness is not limited to specific periods set aside each day or to specific activities. This attention must be carried about all day long and applied to one’s inner life as well as the outer world. You really have to notice how you feel, what your intuition tells you, where your dreams are pointing, and the symptoms that show where your injuries lie. You have to watch your behavior. And you have to ask questions about it all. How does one thing match up with the other? What might this symptom mean? Why this feeling now?

And this hard work is not limited to your inner life. It is also necessary to pay attention to the world around you and notice, really notice, what passes your way. Are there patterns in how people respond to you? What messages are being sent your way? How do other people live? How are their choices different from yours? Who can your learn from? What do you see/hear/smell/taste/feel in the course of a day? Have you noticed any symbols or themes recurring around you? Is there a lesson there somewhere?

And, of course, you must also go on living your life in this very moment, doing your best, and hoping for better tomorrow. You must carry on loving and working and praying and planning. The pathway to wholeness, it turns out, doesn’t lead to the mountaintop, but right to your front door. It’s found where you are within your wholehearted involvement with the life you have now and the one you are creating day by day.

Note: Parts of this text are from Traveling Stories: Lessons from the Journey of Life, by the author.

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