“To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” – Mary Oliver
I’ve been transitioning since the beginning of the year. Adrift in a changing sea, I’ve moved homes, doubled the number of employees under my wing, and struggled to persist against a political reality unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before.
This is a new state for me.
I generally move through life with clarity and grace – clarity to move with grace into the unknowns of all that life holds. It’s a good space with Zen-like perception and discernment. I typically feel energized and chill-axed, present for whatever arises. The ease and flow I feel in interactions feels like grace. At the end of the day, I typically feel as invigorated as did at the the start.
But with the recent changes, I’ve found myself distracted, overstimulated, and overwhelmed by it all. Interacting with the world from this place–from tasks to meetings to eating breakfast–has a breathless sense of urgency to it and, in this state, when i’m in front of another human, they get about 10% of me. I have such limited capacity to be present; I’m a thousand other places–anywhere but here and now. This is so even if my (probably very tense) body is parked physically right in front of you.
Have you ever felt that way? It’s challenging to be present with the people I need to be present for, let alone to lead from this place. How much space for someone else can come from that place? It’s doubly difficult to be a vessel for compassion when my attention is AWOL.
“Wherever you are, be all there.” – Jim Elliot
In our current podcast episode, Roshi Joan Halifax, Ph.D., founder of the Upaya Institute and Zen Center, talks with Jerry about her concept of G.R.A.C.E as a model for creating compassionate leaders. The G.R.A.C.E model of leadership was initially developed to help prevent burnout and secondary trauma in clinicians and is a simple and efficient way to open to another’s experience, to stay centered in the presence of suffering, and to develop the capacity to respond with compassion.
For, says Roshi Joan, without compassion, life is ruthless–for ourselves and others. As humans, we have a need to be heard, seen, and attuned to in relationship. Compassion starts by cultivating presence, which starts by gathering our attention.
“Attentional balance is really critical in terms of being the foundation where we’re able as leaders or clinicians or parents or lawyers to be fully present and to have the ability to discern clearly what is happening in the present moment. That capacity, if we are able to see clearly what’s happening in the present moment and we’re not grounded but we are upregulated and our attention becomes divided or dispersed or distracted, there’s no possibility that we can actualize compassion…Attention is really a critical feature in the experience of compassion.”
While G.R.A.C.E. is an important quality when we are in the midst of a stressful interaction or situation, one of the big questions behind this model is “how can we bring ourselves into deep relationship, into connection, with others?”
And gathering attention, says Roshi Joan, is “The very foundation of everything that we experience when we’re in our own subjectivity or in our inter-subjectivity that is relating to others is attention.”
“The cultivation of attentional balance,” she adds, “is being able to actually perceive in a way that allows us to perceive clearly, to have attention that’s stable, to have a quality of attention where there’s high resolution or vividness, and to actually be able to sustain our attention for more than a moment.”
From here, we have presence. I once read a sweet line that reframed enlightenment as ‘intimacy with all things.’ Presence feels like that. When you’ve gathered your attention and are attuned to yourself and the other person, you have the capacity for fierce compassion to meet what’s here and what’s coming at you with openness, connectedness, and discernment and without looking away. From that place, compassionate action can arise in a way that is in service to the other.
As the wise poet Mary Oliver notes: “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.”
When you need to gather your attention, try this guided experience from Roshi Joan:
“Pause, breathe in, give yourself time to get grounded. Invite yourself to be present and embodied by sensing into a place of stability in your body. You can focus your attention on the breath, for example, or on a neutral part of the body, like the soles of your feet or your hands as they rest on each other. You can also bring your attention to a phrase or an object. You can use this moment of gathering your attention to interrupt your assumptions and expectations and to allow yourself to relax and be present.”
And, may your next interaction be full of clarity and grace. And may all beings find their own ways to persist.