Have you ever really paid attention to yourself? I mean really, really paid attention.
It was in my late twenties, when I was living in Beijing and had just taken on the role of a Public Relations Consultant. I was standing in the middle of a grand ballroom overseeing a product launch event for a luxury brand, decked out in an all-black power suit, sporting bold, red, confident lips, and accessorized with a clipboard in my left hand. All around me, cameras flashed in an unchoreographed dance of bright lights. Extravagant music boomed through the speakers, and very important people were applauding, smiling, cheering. I was basking in a familiar air of glitz and glamour.
“Erin!” A voice called out from behind. I turned around to see my client, Hannah, walking hurriedly towards me and clutching an eye-catching designer handbag. “I need to go to the washroom. Amelia’s about to go on stage for her speech now, could you hold on to her bag in the meantime? Be careful, it’s very expensive!” With that, she gingerly hooked the handles of the bag over my arm, and swiftly disappeared into the crowd.
So there I was, standing in the middle of the grand ballroom, in my power suit and red lips, accessorized with a clipboard in my left hand, and a $5000 handbag over my right arm, when it all happened.
Everything around me fell away - the lights, the music, the people, the extravaganza. It felt like a beam of spotlight was thrown on me, only the spotlight was my very own attention. I was suddenly very aware of the heaviness of the bag weighing down on my arm, and somehow this feeling of heaviness began coursing through my entire body. For the next few moments, I stood rooted to the floor of the ballroom, unable to move and deeply intrigued by what I was sensing at the physical level. It was as though I had noticed my body for the very first time in almost three decades, and despite the heaviness weighing me down, I felt curious and strangely at ease with this new discovery.
This is what exhaustion feels like, I thought to myself. Wow, this is my body crying for help.
That night marked the start of a paradigm shift in the way I lived my life. All the past years of self-defined professionalism - working more than 12 hours a day, staying late in the office, chasing deadlines over weekends, burning out, falling sick, breaking down, and calling it quits - they all began to alter as soon as I became more aware of myself.
I hadn’t quite found mindfulness at that time, when I was still struggling to keep my head above the water in the Corporate Communications industry. But little did I know I was in fact on my way to discovering one of the most remarkable capacities I had - the ability to pay attention.
Attention on its own is not mindfulness, but it is fundamental to living a mindful life. We wouldn't be able to practice mindfulness without the ability to pay attention. This is why I usually cover the topic of attention right at the start of a mindfulness training program. When we practice mindfulness, we learn to direct and sustain our attention in a specific way. It is through learning to pay attention that we come to recognize the urgent need for change, and the burden of remaining status quo.
The moment I decided to look into the weariness of my body, I was also suddenly privy to the deeper layers of my psyche - the pomposity I secretly coveted, the identities I was stubbornly holding on to, the unhappiness driving those perpetual cycles of motivation and fatigue, as well as a desire for a final release from years of self-neglect. The moment I started paying attention to myself, I had already begun cultivating a different relationship with my body, and consequently, my mind.
I don't mean to paint a picture of rainbows and unicorns when it comes to personal change. In fact, it wasn't an immediate or even neatly progressive transformation for me. Over the years, I practiced mindful awareness diligently, setting the intention for myself to get better and better by the day, but from time to time I still found myself falling back into the vicious cycle of over-engagement followed by total disengagement. It can feel discouraging at times, when we take this to mean that we have not progressed, but the truth is that each time I ended up back on the familiar grounds of stress and burnout, I wasn't actually back to square one. Instead, I gained a deeper and more intimate understanding of how my mind worked, and the many resources I had to make change happen.
I take comfort in the beautiful teachings of Jack Kornfield, who describes the path of self-development as anything but a simple and linear one:
"It is like a labyrinth, a circle, a flower’s petal-by-petal opening, or a deepening spiral, a dance around the still point, the center of all things. There are always changing cycles - ups and downs, openings and closings, awakenings to love and freedom, often followed by new and subtle entanglements. In the course of this great spiral, we return to where we started again and again, but each time with a fuller, more open heart.(1)"Change is a messy, lifelong process, since we are always work in progress. Along the way we may be tempted to look back at where we once were, wondering if we've gotten it right, but once we start on the path of change, we will never be the same as before.
I'd like to boldly contend that the start of every personal transformation begins with just paying attention. But our modern lifestyle doesn't exactly encourage us to pay meaningful attention to ourselves and the way we live. In a distraction-filled world where everything is screaming, "Look at me! Look at me!", what should we be attending to?
What might happen when we begin to shift our attention away from the external world, and start looking inside? What might change?
1. JackKornfield.com, "The Path Is Not Linear but Circular and Continuous," https://jackkornfield.com/path-linear-circular-continuous/