Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Attention, devotion, and spiritual crises

This morning, I woke up and my sense of life-suck is intense. Not my life-suck. My life is pretty okay. It's the world-suck,really, that's hurting me in a visceral way. In a way that takes my breath away, and leaves me feeling like a scuba diver under an ocean that presses the weight of a thousand worlds upon every inch of my skin.

Yesterday, I listened to an interview between Krista Tippett and Mary Oliver on "On Being." I had listened to this interview before, but they re-aired it in honor of the publication of Oliver's new book.

There are many beautiful moments in this interview, but this time I listened to it, this one stood out to me:

" MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. I’d like to talk about attention, which is another real theme that runs through your work — both the word and the practice. And I know people associate you with that word. But I was interested to read that you began to learn that attention without feeling is only a report. That there is more to attention than — for it to matter in the way you want it to matter. Say something about that learning.

MS. OLIVER: You need empathy with it rather than just reporting. Reporting is for field guides. And they’re great. They’re helpful. But that’s what they are. But they’re not thought provokers. And they don’t go anywhere. And I say somewhere that attention is the beginning of devotion, which I do believe. But that’s it. A lot of these things are said but can’t be explained."

And I think this is part of it. My work - my professional work - is so much about attention, isn't it? When I am working with a child or a family, on my good days, there is nothing else in the world. I am there, in that moment, attending only to that child. I am not only noticing his verbal answers when I ask about the bullies at his school, or about how angry she gets when things don't go her way, but I am also attending to the way her eyes shine when she giggles, and the way the dimple on his chin stands out when he is being mischevious. My work lies in noticing the ways parents look away with embarrassment when they talk about their frustration with their child. It is held in noticing the moment when the shift happens - when the anger gives way to sadness, when the frustration gives way to desperation, when the denial gives way to reality. It lies in drawing out the tiny moments of joy, and capitalizing on the moments of pride with genuine excitement. My good work depends on attending to the details: favorite colors, special interests, dog's names, family vacations, and favorite superheroes.

But my heart is not full of field guides of other people's children. Instead, my heart is full of the way these things matter, and the meaning of the places where these things take us. My work is not about reporting, or solely about attention. It is not even only about empathy.

Since the first time I worked with a child one-on-one when I was 16, I knew there was something holy about this work. There is something spiritual, and necessary, and hard, and cruel, and beautiful, and right. There is something about this practice of attention and empathy that feels like a devotional practice to my world.  It is necessary for me, and it is my whole heart, and I don’t know how to be any other way.

When you attend to the world as I do, just because it is the way I was made, sometimes it gets to be too much.  And not just a little bit too much.  Sometimes, it becomes all the way too much.  It has always been this way.  I was the kid who cried over her history book in 4th grade.  I was the kid who cried over pictures of dinosaurs eating one another in kindergarten.   When things at work go shitty for me, my whole world goes topsy-turvy.  I wish I wasn’t this way.  I wish I was different.  I wish my heart wasn’t this big, boundless, uncontrollable thing that goes catapulting into spiritual crises with such regularity I practically feel at home there.  When your heart is full of books about the meanings of other people’s lives, when you read about death after death, and injustice after injustice, and you know those lives are books full of meanings you simply never had the opportunity to know…what do you do with that?  I try to change, but I am always here – right here – in this place of attention, and empathy, and devotion. 

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