By Avram Chetron: When I reflect on personal growth, it's difficult to separate the few moments when real change happens from all the ideas about spirituality that I've embraced or thought worthy.
In Aldous Huxley's book "Island," one feature of his utopian society is the constant presence throughout the island of birds who yell the command "Attention!" from treetops, rooftops and everywhere. I think he intended to give the same advice as Ram Dass' "Be here how," a message that we easily consider and usually disregard after a moment.
When I reflect on personal growth, it's difficult to separate the few moments when real change happens from all the ideas about spirituality that I've embraced or thought worthy.
What characterizes the genuine life changes, and they do happen in an instant, has something to do with using attention. It's when I've encountered loss of love, of a job, of a son, that my attention is drawn to my pain and my fear. What follows if I go with that is inevitably more suffering in the form of inner dialogue characterized by victimhood, martyrdom, complaints, whining and wrongheaded questions like "Why me?" The powerful path at these moments, moments we all experience, is the realization that you can direct your attention, always. And, when I've directed it away from "Woe is me" and toward whatever I can use to center myself — breath, the immediate environment, my physical body — that's when the right questions come up. The right questions give further direction to my attention, and though I can say that some of them are "What can I do that matters?" or "Who am I really, when I put aside my possessions, my pride of accomplishment, my ideas, etc?" your right questions only make sense in the context of your own loss and your own pain.
My experience has been that when I've been in command of my attention is when I can surrender what needs to be surrendered. So much of the pain and stuck places in my psyche have been remedied by this simple, yet elusive, act. It is part of our culture to see surrender as weakness. It's in our language. Giving up is a bad thing. Surrender is what we do when we're beaten. It's an admission of defeat. It says we're second best, that we've lost. This is particularly true if you're male. But consider the cost of embracing that value regardless of circumstance. You must be right. You must make others who see things differently understand that you are right. You must have the love of that special person because you deserve it. You must win, because life is a contest, the world is inherently a dangerous threatening place, and you can only survive by being better than others who succumb. And as this mind set inevitably leads to you're not measuring up, you must not give in to your pain and your fear. Repress them and carry on!
So, how can we get out from under this self-generated pressure to always be more than we are? We allow ourselves to be less! Use your attention to see that, in this case at least, less is more. I've actually felt the psychic knots untie. It's quite a burden making everyone else appreciate your infallibility. I'm reminded of a T-shirt I once had with the message, "If you can't control yourself, control others!" I think all too often that's what we try to do.
One more challenge along the way is that this high road sounds dull. Of course it isn't, but it seems defeatist, low energy and empty, especially when contrasted with the romance of striving, conquering and being admired. Try being quiet inside (not asleep!), letting yourself care less about what you think you deserve, what you think is yours. See what happens.
Avram Chetron is a retired high school math teacher who has lived in Ashland since 2007 and enjoys singing with the Rogue Valley Peace Choir. Rogue Valley residents from all paths and disciplines, believers or non-believers of all ages are invited to write articles for the Inner Peace column. Send your 650 word article to Sally McKirgan at firstname.lastname@example.org.