It was one of those days. Beginning with much promise and sliding into unfulfilled hours. I’d like to blame it on a lot of things. The problem with blame is that it’s only a commentary on what might be. It’s not and cannot be explanatory. Nor can it be motivational. Maybe that’s why the day slipped into a string of moments that unwittingly got filled with unphotographed images.
I like to tell the participants of a stress management program I run that when we lapse into unawareness, we turn off the camera of attention. No camera, no memory. No memory, no learning. No learning, lousy choices.
If I peel back the days, I can see why this particular day was what it was. Two days earlier, my partner and I lead a retreat for over 150 people for whom the idea of meditating was “out there”. It didn’t help to find out that their professional development day had begun at 0500 with more physical exertion than I’ve put out in my lifetime. And, they were a captive audience – this was not a choice to be there listening to a couple of shrinks tell them how to get healthy by developing awareness.
We take so much for granted. I have hung out in groupings of professions, practitioners, and play-dates whose language and assumptions have become somewhat unquestioned as we weave our relationships. And then (thankfully) I’m put at an edge of communication that demands letting go of everything I rely on to forge relationships. All the concepts of assumed commonalities are stripped away and I drop into the true nature of relationship. It can be threatening. It can be a giggle.
So I picked up the microphone, stepped out into the center, looked around the room, went blank, and said, “Well… I haven’t got a clue what to say!” It was as close to a standing ovation as I’ll ever get.
My job for three hours was to get across a simple point: pay attention, notice when you’ve looked away. My partner did the rational data delivery: allostatis, allostatic load, stress, lions, elephants, and zebras, Oh My! I did the experiential stuff, evoking a felt sense of the data – dangerously close to a tent revival meeting if the call and response is unskillfully managed. The image of over 150 men and women sitting still and following their breath was, and still is, overpowering.
The responsibility of a retreat, of course, is for the retreat leaders themselves to pay attention, not look away. I call it the full-body contact version of embodied practice. In every moment, I have to find the balance between what was unfolding in my body, speech, and mind and steer to coordinates set in a thirty second conversation we’d had the night before. It’s our style of preparation: plan no-plan.
I suppose it’s about trust. Not so much in the Other; though it helps that we’ve done this a couple of times before. It’s trust in my own way of knowing, in processing the sensations sent from body to mind to speech to body to mind. Touch, sight, sound, scent, taste, and knowing. Powerfully elevating and equally emptying.
Somewhere in the day that was going nowhere, I woke up and remembered what I had said to those very still women and men sitting and breathing.
Pay attention. Notice when you’ve looked away. Come back.
There’s nowhere to go.
Thank you for practising,
Images from top: Syracuse Airport, Sunset after waking up