In yoga practice we are constantly told to pay attention. Pay attention to the breath. Pay attention to what is happening in your body. Pay attention to your locks and your drishti. Why pay attention? Paying attention is about being in the present moment. Isn’t it interesting that even when the present moment is quite pleasant—or at least harmless—we still tend to check out? Even in the best of circumstances, we go into the past and the future when all we need to do is stay present. Why is it so hard to pay attention?
Our culture has taught us that it is good to be busy. It is good to be overworked. It is good to be a multitasker. It is good to be working long hours. It is good to be agressive and to take what you want when you want it. You are supposed to have a full-time job and a family and get all the housework done and pay your bills and then relax on cue for your one-week vacation. I feel exhausted and distracted just writing these things.
This December, when I was preparing to leave for six weeks away with my family, a student asked me how long I would be away. I said six weeks. She said, “Wow, six weeks. That’s a long time. How lucky. I am jealous. But you deserve it.” So much was said in the short exchange. First of all, six weeks with my family. Yes, that is a long time. My priority is my family. I work in order to be with them. The old saying “work to live, don’t live to work” really fits here. Then there is the lucky part. Yes, I am lucky to have been born in the U.S. Yes, I am lucky to have found a career I love, but is all of this just luck? No. I have made many choices in my life to get me to this point. I am 44 years old. I have been working full time for 20 years. I have made very many decisions over that time, but I have tried to pay attention to my priorities: Travel, balance, family, and work that feeds my soul. What about the jealous part? Do all of us make choices? Can each and every one of us live with less in order to have a fuller life? Probably. I can’t really speak for anyone else, but I will say this. I have always tried to follow this advice:
Do what you think is right in your heart and what your instincts tell you. You will not regret decisions that you made under those circumstances, even if they don’t turn out as you had hoped. However, if you think you know what is right and you do the opposite, you may regret it for the rest of your life.
Doing what you think is right is called in the spiritual tradition “right action.” Right action creates more right action. This builds a foundation for a more stable and happy life. This is about being consistent with what you know is right, even the smallest of things. This is about paying attention. When you need to make a decision, ask yourself, is this consistent with what I want from life and what I believe in? You may be suprised at the answers.
What about the deserving part? Do I deserve to be with my family more than you? Of course not. Deserving means that I have made some sort of sacrifice. To me that is not the point. Everyone deserves to spend time with their families. Everyone deserves rest and time to do the things that make them happy. No one deserves to get sick or to work 80 hours a week. When I think of the people who are fighting for their freedom and safety in Isreal, Palestine, Iraq, Afganistan, Somalia, and all over the world, I think about how what they really want is to be with the people they love and to be safe. They want access to the things that keep them safe and happy; clean water, food, sanitation, housing, heat, and the safety of their families. Work is simply to pay for these things once they are available.
In yoga practice, the idea of paying attention is to take the time to really notice what is happening right now. We have been taught to be distracted, to be overstimulated, and to think about everything all the time. Our culture tells us we can’t trust ourselves. We need all of these things to make us happy. Yoga philosophy says the opposite: Trust what you know to be be true. Trust yourself. Pay attention to what your heart says. Listen closely. You know what is right. Be mindful of others. Be compassionate. Be kind. Be honest. Do no harm.
So what does paying attention mean? It means practicing trusting yourself. Trusting that you can turn off your thoughts and the universe will not explode. That you can actually quiet down, turn your attention inwards, and find something valuable there. Your yoga practice is about training the body and the mind to connect in a way that allows for this message to be heard. So what do you need to do? (We are a goal-oriented society after all!) Just get on your mat, again and again and again. I will see you there!