Attending to Life: The Skill That Shifted Me From Reactive & Defensive to Peaceful & Joyful
I am going to try to pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers, and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen. ~Anne Lamott
This California Poppy is in my front yard. There was a time in my life that I would not have have noticed it, much less stopped to really look at it. The richness and warmth of the color feels like a miracle to me. As cheesy as it sounds, I am so grateful that I am alive to experience it.
If you spent much time with me between the ages of 16–26, there is a good chance you would not have liked me very much. I defended myself with sarcastic humor, arrogance and argument. I was often critical, unreliable, compulsive, and manipulative.
Perhaps you think I am being too hard on myself. Trust me, this is simply honest self-evaluation and reflection. I know why I behaved this way, and I have a lot of compassion for that guy — he was doing the best he could with the skillset he had.
I carried a lot of confusing, intense, and sometimes terrifying feelings around in my body. I was filled with shame and fear. I was pretty darn convinced that if people really knew me, they would run for the hills.
I can tell you lots of childhood stories that may explain all these feelings, but all that really matters is that I felt driven to escape them when they showed up.
I tried to create a facade that would be more acceptable or desirable than what I felt inside. When you don’t see yourself as lovable, capable and trustworthy, then you are at the whim of how you think others see you. I craved praise, but didn’t believe it when I got it. I tried to avoid critical feedback, but beat myself up with every word when it came.
Here’s the rub — once you choose a self-protective strategy such as being a chameleon, pleasing everyone, pretending you don’t need anyone, trying to “win” every conversation, or always appearing shiny and happy, it is like getting on a carnival ride that is stuck in high gear. It is exhausting and really hard to get off.
And holy cow was I exhausted — I would put my head down on the pillow each night not knowing how I was going to face another day.
We all suffer until we are tired of suffering ~Cheri Huber
Fortunately, two things happened that began the process of learning how to live a life I looked forward to.
- I met someone who made me want to be healthy. My partner is one of the wisest, kindest, and most thoughtful people I have ever known. She always seems to know what the next right thing to do is. It became very clear that my coping strategies were putting our relationship in serious jeopardy.
- I hit a wall. Literally. I punched a cement wall in frustration and broke my hand badly enough to require surgery and hardware. I bottomed out. There was no denying that I had reached a point where things were unmanageable. I call this my nervous breakthrough.
I was finally tired enough of suffering that I was willing to face some of the things I had been trying to avoid for as long as I can remember.
This is when I began attending to my life. It was slow and spotty at first. There was a lot of resistance and a lot of fear that I would discover how awful I really am.
In the dictionary attending has several definitions including — pay attention, be present, deal with, give help and care, be with, accompany. I think of attending as the practice of intentionally bringing awareness, acceptance, compassion, and courage to your present experience. It is listening for whatever wisdom is available in whatever is happening.
A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep. ~Saul Bellow
Attending to life changed everything. I have become less invested in whether my circumstances are the way I think they should be and more conscious of what I am practicing — where I am putting my attention and energy.
I spend less time defending myself or reacting aggressively. This leaves so much more energy to savor life, to support others, and to be creative.
The more I practice being with what I am feeling rather than constantly trying to get rid of discomfort or do whatever it takes to feel better, the more my experience of life naturally shifts toward love, wonder, and joy.
I was someone who used to roll my eyes when people talked about feelings or anything having to do with the heart. I believed everything could be figured out through the intellect and thinking. Now, I clearly see the power of living a life that honors and cultivates love, courage, and embodied wisdom.
Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are. ~Jose Ortega y Gasset
Here are some areas of life I have found to be particularly powerful sources of wisdom and well-being when we attend to them.
Breath: When I brought attention to my breath, I realized how often I was unconsciously holding it because of stress, or how rapidly I was breathing when I felt anxious. Learning how to breathe slowly and gently through my nose into a relaxed abdomen has had a huge impact on my physical and emotional health. Attending to the breath brings me right back into the present.
Posture: I was so tense and closed. I would habitually cross my arms over my chest and pull my shoulders towards my ears. My hands and jaw were often clenched. Practicing an open, upright, and grounded stance allowed me to feel more confident and welcoming. Psychologically, I started to develop a more accepting and trusting posture toward life in the face of doubt and uncertainty.
Sensations: This was particularly helpful in working through old feelings of trauma and shame. I discovered that thinking and talking are just not enough on their own to heal feeling pathways. I learned to get quiet and notice when, where, and how discomfort shows up in my body. Being patient and open in the presence of these feelings allowed wisdom to arise that gave me a new way of experiencing them. Finally, I learned to ask tough feelings what they need to be resolved.
Thinking: Thinking can be so seductive. The real eye-opener for me was seeing how much of what I think is just gossip among neurons — noise. I became aware of how often I get caught in spinning and worrying. I could see that this kind of thinking rarely led to any insight or change — but at least it sucked the quality out of my life.
Habits: By being clear about how my habits operate — noticing triggers, behaviors, and results — I could anticipate and make plans for small changes. When I was honest about what I actually get from some of my behaviors, I was able to lose interest in repeating them. My daily habits are dramatically different now and most of them support health and well-being. And I have others I am still working on!
Relationships: This is perhaps the biggest shift for me. In the past when someone expressed a need, I saw it in one of two ways — criticism that I wasn’t doing enough or an opportunity to prove that I was lovable. The common denominator for these two — it was about me. When I started really attending to my relationships, I realized that there was a core part of me that just wanted to be supportive. This led me to ask questions like: Why aren’t I simply supporting others whenever possible? or What gets in the way of reaching out, helping, giving? I find that I am more able to respond to the needs of others without making it about me.
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? ~Mary Oliver
Attending to life is a skill that is strengthened with practice. I do not see building this skill through the lens of self-improvement. I see it as growth in your ability to access and apply the wisdom you already have. I don’t see the goal of life as becoming a “better” person —I see it as being fully who you are and helping others do the same.