Giving Attention to That Which Most Needs Attention (revisited)

Recently I’ve been thinking of retreat as the opportunity to allow attention to light up that which most needs attention. Can we look into this a bit together right now?

What does this mean? What is it that needs attention? What first comes to mind for me are things like “I need to clean the kitchen,” “I should call my  mom,” “I’ve only got four hours left to finish painting today.”

The thought of these activities is already a little tiring and I’m looking forward to giving attention to the tired and sore body with some rest, relaxation, maybe some stretching, and some sleep.

Is this the total of what needs attention in our lives?

Maybe it’s the future that needs attention. Maybe I need to plan for a better future. As I write this, I realize that there are so many assumptions in me about what “better” would mean. It feels like I have two choices right now. I can assume that I really know what would make my life better and move forward with trying to work toward that or I can move inward and become a little clearer about what “better” might mean. I believe it’s this second direction that, for me, needs more attention.

This leads me back to considering what it is about my life that feels less than satisfactory, less than what it could be? What is it that feels like it wants to be better in the future?

Maybe you don’t want to go into these darker places. Maybe it’s wise for you not to. But let’s see if we can at least shine a little light honestly and openly and caringly together on this ball of difficult memories and draining patterns that all of us humans are subject to.

Isn’t there, under the surface that we try very valiantly to keep somewhat cheery for others, a sense of what we might call unfinished business? Perhaps this includes memories of habits of interactions with others that have been hurtful to all parties. Perhaps it includes concerns about getting old, becoming helpless and vulnerable, dying away. Perhaps it includes a sorrow for the painful way that humanity lives, how poorly humans treat each other, abuse of power, blindness to, and violation of,  the gentle needs of the natural world. Perhaps locked away inside somewhere is a sorrow for what one has gone through personally – the lack of love and connection that we almost took for granted would be our lot when we were young.

Do you have the sense that right here, just under the surface, is a great deal of unfinished business that may feel very personal? Do you have the feeling that at this moment this either gets light and air and space and attention or it continues to become harder, drier, older, more painful, more numb?

If this becomes very clear, there is really no choice but to find a way for the light of the world to have the chance to touch all of this. For most of us, daily life doesn’t offer enough support, despite our best and repeated efforts. So this is where the beauty of retreat comes in. Giving ourselves seven days to devote to the healing of this unfinished business. Coming together to support each other. Being in a beautiful quiet natural setting. Putting aside most of the activities that move us away from in-touchness.

In this setting healing cannot help but take place. It happens on its own. But the dialoguing that we do together, listening to each other, inquiring together bravely, gently, all of this brings even more energy to the healing process, because even in retreat there are very stuck patterns that may never open up without our coming together. What a miraculous thing to become each others’ support!

In a way it can be too painful in daily life to come  in touch with this ball of unfinished concerns, fears, anxieties, discomforts, hopes, passions, so they stay in the dark and become more difficult, more encrusted, adding a bit to our sorrow and the sorrow of the world.

And we tend to become a little bit more calloused, numb, in order to survive. Many people say something like, ” Of course I have issues and concerns but I don’t let them overwhelm me. I have faith that it will work out eventually and I’m patient.”

I suppose therapists might say this is a healthy coping strategy but to me I can’t help but feel sad. When I see how patterns in me cause pain to others and to myself, the need for shedding light on what is going on is immediate. It isn’t something that can be put off to the future. I’m thinking of a person I know who described having been a heavy smoker. At one point it was clear to her how harmful this was. She couldn’t force herself to stop by will power. But she also didn’t turn away from the issue. With a new intensity she observed in clear detail the entire process of beginning to crave, of rationalizing what she would do, of lighting and inhaling, of finishing the cigarette, and of all of the feelings going on the whole time. She burned with the need to face the painful pattern in each moment. This intense attention took the mystery out of the addictive pattern and it lost its power. Soon she was no longer smoking.

So maybe our question here is not just “what is it that most needs attention” but also “Isn’t the need for attention immediate. Isn’t this something that is not to be put off any further, that only becomes more painful the longer it is put off?”

Some people may read this and feel that there is no need to go “looking for trouble.” That they will deal with things when they come up. In fact they may feel that the greatest thing they’ve learned from meditation is to not get too riled up about things. I understand this and it definitely has its place. At the same time there are in each of us patterns of reaction that come up again and again. Just dropping a reaction when it comes up is wise in that moment but there is most likely something behind the reaction that has not yet come to light. We don’t necessarily need to go hunting for what that might be. We just need to give lots of opportunity for deeper layers of habit, conditioning, reaction, trauma, to emerge. Given enough opportunity, these things will start to move, come to the surface, open, and heal.

Taking this a little further, my feeling is that not only is there so much that needs attention now, but it also needs very deep, thorough-going attention. This kind of deep attention can be difficult for us to access in daily life. Deep attention shed on an issue can kick up painful feelings. Maybe this is why we become content with more superficial ways of trying to touch on our issues.

Periodically setting aside time to come together for seven days of retreat, then, is an amazing chance to allow deep, through-going attention to shed light into our deepest being in a way that doesn’t happen in our ordinary life. And yet so deeply needs to happen right now.


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