Paying Attention

Is there anyone among us who doesn’t know by now that we’re being shaken to our core by immense social and global changes?

There’s the ever-evolving pandemic, the chaotic political landscape, and the recent, long-due protests that the NY Times is calling “the largest movement in the country’s history, according to interviews with scholars and crowd-counting experts.”

Although we all inhabit this world at the same time, our individual experience of the crises are not of the same intensity. Yes, our lives have been disrupted and our rhythms and rituals upended. But then, there’s loss of life, livelihood, and security.

There’s a thundering, universal demand for letting go. Letting go of old belief systems and destructive behaviors. Letting go of our attachment for things to go back to the way they’ve always been. Letting go of our need to be comfortable. Letting go of our tendency to turn a blind eye. Letting go of our illusions, among other things.

The ground underneath our feet is shifting and emotions run high. Everything’s up in the air, nothing is certain or clear, and we have no idea where we’re heading or how we fit.

When the pull of change becomes this strong, it’s in our nature to feel nervous, anxious, uncomfortable, sad, fearful, and even hopeless or angry. We tend to run for safe space. We can attempt to avoid, deny, and even lash out when pushed, but there’s no running from this one. Maybe knowing this is what makes people’s behavior even more extreme than usual.

In one of my previous entries On Self Compassion, I mentioned how this period feels like a really long retreat, a retreat we didn’t sign up for.

During a retreat, we’re encouraged to be silent and focus on the practices of contemplation and reflection. We use the opportunity to go deeper and as stuff comes up, we get to look at ourselves closely and intimately, with honesty and, hopefully, kindness.

In silence, we come to meet ourselves, where we are, as we are, and accept the reality of our complicated and messy nature. We come to recognize what pushes our buttons, the places that scare us, our innermost motivations, the root of our anger, and the source of our tears.

This process is an ongoing one. It takes time, patience, and the willingness to keep putting one foot in front of the other, despite the discomfort and many setbacks along the way.

One of my teachers used to describe the process of going deeper and looking at our tendencies, motivations, and longings closely, as the “peeling back of the many layers of an onion.” We peel one layer, but there’s yet another one to peel back and another, and we keep peeling until we reach the heart of the onion. The heart of the onion is the truth of who we are and what our place in the universe is.

To uncover the truth of who we are, we have to be willing to look past our initial responses and triggers. We need to stay put when our buttons are pushed and our emotions bubble up. We need to keep questioning ourselves until we hit gold.

I remember one of the first retreats I participated in, at a meditation center in upstate New York, in the 1980s. There were over 2,000 participants from all over the country. The meditation hall was always packed. I’d sit, cross-legged on the floor to listen to the talks, chant, and meditate. Invariably and as soon as I’d make myself comfortable, someone would walk by and step on my hands or nudge me and ask me to move.

It wouldn’t take long for me to lose my focus and have my buttons pushed. “What the heck? Watch where you’re going buddy,” I’d think, and I’d feel frustration and anger rise inside. I mean really, can’t a girl just be left alone to sit quietly and meditate? Geez!

When I finally had enough, I met a friend and let it all out. I went on and on about the lack of consideration in other people. He looked at me and smiled. “What is really going on?” he asked. “You know all this is part of the practice.” I had to stop and think.

During one of the breaks, I took a slow walk through the woods reflecting on the experience. Sadness welled up, then tears came, and I knew. There I was … feeling stepped on and invisible. These feelings were old and mine to tend to. There was this tender part of me vying for my attention and the time had come for me to pay attention. And so the journey of getting to know me began.

These days feel like that long weekend at the Ashram. I’m being given plenty of opportunities to be still and listen. Old stuff has been coming up for me to take yet another look at, from a different angle this time. My meditation is taking me deeper. New mentors and lesson givers are appearing. Despite the benefits of this long extended retreat, I have to admit that there are days when I feel lost and rattled.

How can we get out of this mess? Why is it so difficult to look at ourselves in the mirror and stop being self-protective? The old ways are not working. They never have.

What if we sat with what’s pushing our buttons? What if we stopped taking our triggers at face value? What would happen if we questioned our motivation and looked closer at that which scares us or infuriates us? Maybe it wouldn’t be as scary anymore and maybe we would learn to love ourselves and accept how complicated we are. And, maybe, just maybe, we would be able to begin the healing process.


  • Kathleen

    This is lovely, Yota. I feel like the path forward either widens or narrows as we get older depending on how much “stuff” we keep trying to avoid dealing with. Sitting with what pushes my buttons seems a better alternative!

    • Yota Schneider

      Thank you, Kathleen. It’s been a long, hot summer, hasn’t it? The “stuff” is not going anywhere, hard as we may try to avoid dealing with it. Frankly, it’s exhausting. We may as well look at our stuff and learn to laugh with ourselves. It gets easier this way.

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