Notes from my journal: attention

If you want to shrink something,
you must first allow it to expand.

If you want to get rid of something,
you must first allow it to flourish.

Tao Te Ching,  36


At first glance, this saying makes no sense.  It seems counter-intuitive.  But as I consider it, I begin to see the wisdom in it and understand the logic.  At least in terms of the inner work.  When I suppress or try to deny some unwanted part of me, some fault or weakness of character, it doesn’t go away.  It may seem to.  We are so good at hiding from our faults, quickly turning the other way when evidence of shortcoming rises to the surface.  Or perhaps we decide to become a better person and try to change by the sheer power of will.  And we fail, again and again, with mounting shame and self-loathing when we inevitably screw up.

There is another way.  This way is simple, but not easy.  Attention.  We see the thing, we notice it.  We don’t judge, we don’t buy into the stories attached to the emotions, we simply notice.  And as we notice what is really there when we stop hiding, it can feel rather grim.  The darkness mounts, there seems to be nothing good in us.  It seems to expand, to flourish.  No need to worry.  Accept that we are made of both darkness and light.  Radical self-acceptance will keep us sane.  Patience and compassion will soothe us as we notice more and more how much we have hidden, how afraid we have been to see all that we are capable of, all that we are.

And then, on its own, the vines of negativity begin to wither.  The faults and weaknesses shrink and begin to disappear.  The darkness begins to give way to light.  It is a wonderful mystery that what is unwholesome unravels of its own accord if I stop hiding from it; spontaneously, in an organic way, and without my meddling. Balance is restored, true balance.  We are still made up of darkness and light, but we have made friends with the darkness and it no longer oppresses us.  The muddy water begins to clear and the serenity of  an untroubled mind reflects a more accurate world back to us.  We find we have more patience with the weaknesses of others, having become so well acquainted with our own.  It becomes easier to accept another because we have learned to accept ourselves.

It takes a dose of humility to admit and face our shortcomings. We lie to ourselves quite well, not wanting to face our fear and shame, all the while secretly flogging ourselves for our weaknesses. Simone Weil said, “In the intellectual order, the virtue of humility is nothing more or less than the power of attention.” This has layers of meaning to me. But in what I am considering today, it speaks of the humility needed to pay honest and clear attention to who we really are, weaknesses and strengths, darkness and light. This kind of honesty in self-evaluation and then simple attention to what is seen brings incredible power of change. And it happens spontaneously, thus saving us from the pride of knowing we “fixed” ourselves!

If you bring forth what is within you,
what you bring forth will save you.

If you do not bring forth what is within you,
what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

Jesus, from the Gospel of Thomas