Paying Attention

“Do you remember Carl Jung’s claim that humans are 10% conscious and 90% unconscious?” a friend asked me recently. “I believe it’s the work of our generation to become 11% conscious.” While I’d heard Jung’s estimation many times over the years, it had never occurred to me to set a goal of changing it. I felt a challenge as her words resonated strongly.

Increasing our consciousness, our awareness is a theme of Advent. I feel as if I’ve been in Advent for months, waiting and watching for new ways God is coming into the world around me, maybe even today. Clearing space for something new to happen. I’ve been clearing literal space in my home in recent months. Going on a six-day silent centering prayer retreat this fall made me realize how much contemplative practices really do clear space on the inside, even when we can’t touch or quantify or prove it.

I keep being amazed at how much in our lives is unconscious—until it isn’t. We cannot make ourselves see what we cannot yet see. And yet, we can put ourselves in places where something new might wend its way into our consciousness and shift our whole framework. Even then, the light bulb will go on in its own timing.

I’ve heard various estimates, but apparently we have to hear the same thing many times—and maybe in different ways—before it registers. I’ll come upon an exciting new thought only to find reference to having read or thought or heard the same thing months or even years previously. (I have so many partial drafts in folders and ideas on scraps of paper. As I try to condense them, I find repeated themes over and over, things I’m still learning on deeper and deeper levels—well I can hope it’s that and not that I haven’t really heard it at all!) Contemplative practices help us become more present in our lives and therefore more likely to see and hear what we need most on any given day, in any given moment.

I wish I’d counted the number of times I’ve read and heard in recent weeks and months that awareness brings change. Don’t try to change anything, the devotional or wisdom thought will say. Just pay attention, just watch. See if a different question arises. Or just notice what you always do. As you notice your habitual reactions, see if you can spot the thought or feeling arising before those automatic responses. As we watch ourselves and those around us, we begin to see new choices. And as we see new choices we begin to find ourselves making new ones—and getting very different results than we’ve always gotten. Who knew that was even possible?

I piloted the workshop “Opening Space for a Third Way” this fall. We explored the oppositional energy that arises as we try to make one another change—or try to resist being changed. We paid attention to the ways our normal defensive selves create the energy of opposition and resistance. We used the Enneagram—a tool that shows us what those defensive selves might look like for different types of folks—to help us see better what we might be doing to contribute to a stuck situation. As we met—and since—the relationship where I see the biggest battles going on is within myself. The more I fight with myself, I’ve also noticed, the more difficult other relationships become. As I’ve tried on several days to draft this post, I keep tripping over habitual places where I’m, once again, getting into a pushing and shoving match inside. Choosing to simply watch the age-old process without trying to change it has actually elicited much joy, even in the midst of some of the aggravation. Go figure. Stop fighting and a sense of peace washes in.

Not everyone fights with themselves as a habitual defensive strategy. Many of us pick fights with others or put up walls and go to our happy places or try to control everything in the external environment. And there’s way more to become aware of than where we’re fighting. Maybe notice what you’re avoiding most or most fearful of. Just keep paying attention. As in meditation, our attention will drift and be captured, but keep bringing it back to the present without judgment when you do notice.

“When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Over the years I’ve told myself I should (that abominable word of the false self, the defensive self that is unable to accept reality as it is) read more x, y or z or listen to more audio to focus my thinking on loftier things or to expand my thinking. Usually there’s a dualistic sense of sacred and profane, in other words judging what has more worth. Yes, we can improve our diet with things more likely to feed us, but in my experience, God breaks through into the oddest places. At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth in a crude stable, which is not the place most of us would predict. What matters is paying attention. What matters is keeping an eye out for Sacred Presence to show up in the wildest places of our lives, as well as the most predictable. We might first have to pay attention to our judgments about where or when or why the Living One might or might not appear before we see anything. Wait and watch. How might new Life and Light be coming to you this year?