Of course life has its ups and downs but I, like everyone else, am always trying to navigate it so I can be on the upside. It’s natural to desire happiness forever and ever. The only problem is it isn’t reality. And measuring life like that doesn’t quite work either. After all, if a well-lived life consists of having more good times than bad, it seems impossible to know if you’ve “won” until you get to the end of it. As Margaret Bonnano said, “it’s only possible to live happily-ever-after on a day-to-day basis.”
I’ve tried to get around this problem by looking backwards. If I live as if the quality of my life can be measured in memories— take a photo here, document this experience there, alert social media in case I forget this happy time ever happened— I can have a way of calculation.
Yet even the reality of what happened can change through the lens of time. I’m certainly guilty of coloring happy times as negative and giving unhappy times a rosy tint they may not deserve. More tragically, there’s the very real possibility of losing our memories when we age. I know I’ve already forgotten so much. If that’s the case, what counts after the moment passes?
If all facets of our life are tenuous and as Pema Chodron says, “there’s nothing to hold on to, even the dharma falls apart in your hands;” if everything is always in flux, then what do we have?
We have our ability to be aware. We have our present-moment attention. Attention isn’t necessarily good or bad; it just is. When you simply listen and pay attention to someone, you aren’t passing judgment, trying to change the situation, or even make things better or worse.
Attention doesn’t have to agree with the perspective; it’s there, like an open-hearted embrace for whatever is happening without saying no or yes to it. Or maybe it’s more like a big Yes. Yes to her or him or the situation exactly as it is. Yes to existence.
Maybe that’s why the silent treatment can feel more hurtful than angry words. Refusing to even acknowledge the existence of someone or something is the same as killing them. Taken too far it can become an almost double-killing, like denying the existence of a chemical warfare attack or the reality of the Holocaust.
Recently I asked a high school history teacher if he could give me any pointers on teaching a writing workshop to a group of middle school girls. He said the only thing I needed to remember was to give every single student a chance to speak and call on them even if they appeared shy.
“The only thing they want is attention,” he said. Ironically enough, his three-year-old daughter was in the room as he said this, irritated that we were having an adult conversation and not playing with her. The entire time she kept trying to get us to notice her and bring the attention back to herself.
I’ve heard some teachers define attention as Love itself, as the very fabric of the universe. Like famous yoga instructor, Rodney Yee, once said in class, attention is the greatest love you can give anyone. He instructed us to roll up our yoga mats as if it was the most beautiful, sacred thing we could do, the mat our most beloved child.
What if we looked at everything like it was our most precious baby? If we treated sitting down to write as nurturing our most precious baby, what would our writing produce? We can birth human beings, but we can also birth ideas and stories and novels.
We can treat our ability to express ourselves as the most beautiful gift we’ve been handed. Isn’t this how parents of newborn children feel, as if they’ve been handed the most wondrous miracle? We need to remember how our parents looked at us and treat ourselves and our work like that.
Sure enough, although each girl at the writing workshop appeared hesitant to raise her hand, she was thrilled to be called on, thrilled to be seen and acknowledged. Even if she didn’t want to share her story, she loved that I asked. She wanted someone to look at her and be interested.
Seeing their reactions made me realize our desperate need for attention does not go away. We may bury it, think it’s narcissistic or impolite, but we all want to be seen, to know we exist.
After all, awareness is simply paying attention to life without zoning or numbing out. The ability to pay attention isn’t only the best gift we can give our loved ones and ourselves, but may be the only way to measure our days, the reality of our lives. It may be the only real currency we have in this lifetime.