The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know Is Possible
Chapter 21: Attention
What most needs attention is the part of us that we seek to avoid feeling. When we have tended to that, we are changed, and the world changes with us.
Let me offer you an example from my own inner monologue that illustrates nondoing as an active principle. I dropped off my car one morning for state inspection and, rather than ask my then-pregnant wife Stella to wake up early to pick me up, walked the five or six miles home. Now let me be clear that this was no hardship at all—I love walking, I was wearing comfortable shoes, and the weather was cold but clear. But as I walked, I started thinking, “Gee, this is taking a long time. I wonder how I can milk this. I know, when I get home I’ll make a little show of being more tired and hungry than I am so that Stella thinks I underwent a hardship for her sake. Then she’ll be extra nice to me.”
That seemed a bit obvious, so I came up with a better idea. “I can put on a brave face and say I’m not tired or hungry, but subtly signal that I am. Then I will get credit not only for having made a sacrifice for her, but also for valiantly trying to keep it secret.”
Recognizing both of these plans as habits of separation (scarcity of love, needing to manipulate and control, exercising psychological force against an “other” who would otherwise just look out for herself), I decided not to implement them. That was when Plan C arose. I would keep my tiredness secret for real. I would bear it in silence and not indulge in puerile machinations. But wait, that’s no good: I’d be acting the part of the martyr, still a habit of separation because it valorizes struggle and cuts me off both from Stella and from gratitude. On to Plan D: I would be someone who has gotten past all that. Then I would be able to approve of myself and—would I smugly look down on others who still do such things? No!—I would tolerantly, nonjudgmentally allow others their own journey.
Unfortunately, I quickly realized that that too was coming from Separation. Why am I so anxious to prove myself good, to meet some standard of virtue? That comes from a kind of scarcity too. In Reunion, love and acceptance of self is natural, a default state. Even positive self-judgment is still judgment; it is conditional approval.
That led to Plan E. I would use this opportunity to take a sober inventory of my habits of separation and put them behind me. I would be someone who is seriously working on himself, someone who has no time for self-pity, self-praise, judgment, or any other frivolity that would impede the important work at hand. Oops. Here I am constructing a pretty self-image that I can like. More separation.
Maybe as a last-ditch plan I could feel ashamed of myself for all of these plans, and therefore earn absolution because at least I feel disgusted with myself. Actually I didn’t consider that one, but you are welcome to try it if you like.
Such sequences of realizations are, I am told, common among meditators, who will then marvel at how sneaky the ego is in trying to get something for itself. Hey, I have an idea. Having gotten past fighting the ego or being disgusted with it, we can at least shake our heads in rueful bemusement, as if in humility at the enormous task before us about which we have no pretenses. That would be mature, wouldn’t it?
All of these plans went through my mind in about fifteen seconds. I ended up implementing none of them. (Well, maybe a bit of Plan A—you’ll have to ask Stella.) It wasn’t because I came up with a Plan F though, to not implement any of them. I simply didn’t implement them. It wasn’t a choice at all in the usual sense.
One of the more subtle habits of the old story is the goal-oriented attempt to seek self-improvement by carrying out a plan. We might unconsciously apply that technique even toward the goal of leaving behind the habits of the old story, but if we do, we will continue reenacting it on a subtle level. Reading over my account above, I see that my description implies that I rejected each plan because it represented a habit of separation, but that is misleading. It isn’t as if I go through my day vigilantly parsing my motivations to make sure I winnow out anything coming from separation. Rather, I note their association with separation in order to help clarify how each choice feels and where it is coming from.
Do I then base my choice on that? No! It is almost accurate to say, “I make my choices based on what feels good,” but not quite. That makes it look like I am advancing a principle about choice-making: choose what feels good. I have advocated such a principle in earlier books, because of the way it breaks down the habit of self-rejection by embracing pleasure as an ally. Nonetheless, it still implies that the way to choose is to consciously weigh two alternatives, evaluate which feels better, and then through an act of will choose that one.
What if we are fooling ourselves when we think we are making our choices according to one or another principle? What if the choices are really coming from somewhere else, and all the reasons we cite for the choice are actually rationalizations? In fact, there is a lot of social psychology research that demonstrates precisely this. Unconscious motives of social conformity, self-image, coherence with belief systems, validation of group norms and worldviews, and so on demonstrably wield a far greater influence than most people suspect.
These findings conform to certain spiritual teachings about the “automaticity of man,” which say that most (though not necessarily all) apparent choices are not really choices, but are the automatic result of choices made long ago. That does not mean that we should cease attempting to change ourselves or the world—as we shall see, it is quite the opposite—but it does suggest a very different approach to doing so.
So what do we do about it? What if you have habits of separation like mine and you want to change them? So many personal empowerment seminars conclude with some kind of declaration of the new you and affirmation of personal responsibility and choice, but over time many people find that the old habits are much stronger than they seemed at that moment of declaration. You might say, “I choose now and forever to respond with loving patience to my children” or “Who I am is courageous nonjudgment”; you might join a work group where you “hold each other accountable”; and when you find yourself doing the very things you forswore or living from old patterns, you feel deep chagrin or shame, and you resolve anew to hold to your word. And you do, for a while, and feel good about yourself. It really isn’t so different from someone on a diet. Willpower, and all the techniques of the motivational arsenal, only work temporarily unless something fundamental has changed. When that fundamental thing has changed we might give ourselves and our willpower the credit, but that is an illusion. We are used to giving the credit to force. That is what willpower encodes: a kind of psychological force to overcome an enemy: yourself.
Before I answer my question “What do we do about it?” I would like to explain why I think it is such an important question. I gave a rather petty example above: if I were in the habit of enacting Plan A, the result would be no worse than Charles Eisenstein having a rather infantile relationship to his wife. You probably know a lot of couples where the wife is a little bit too much like a mommy. Now don’t you name names! Not exactly sexy, but not the end of the world either. But consider what it means for a healer, an activist, or anyone with high ideals to be unconsciously subject to petty ego motivations like those I described. Her activism would harbor a secret agenda. Her energy would be working at cross-purposes.
Whom do we serve? Do we truly serve the more beautiful world our hearts know is possible? Or is that just the banner under which we pursue our private agendas of approval-seeking, identity creation, self-approval, vanity, and self-justification? How much political discussion online is like a big game of “Look, I’m right! And they’re wrong. How could they? How stupid. Aren’t they awful? Aren’t I good?” If our energy is divided, with the majority going toward selfish goals, then those are what we will achieve while nothing much else changes.
I want you to reread the last paragraph and see if you can do it from a story that does not generate any shame, indignation, or condemnation. It sounds like I leveled an awful accusation by using words like approval-seeking, vanity, and self-justification. So let us recognize where the need for these things comes from. They are the responses of a wounded person, cut off from the intimate connections that form a robust identity, and conditioned through conditional acceptance and rejection at a tender age to adopt a deep-seated self-rejection that leaves him ever hungry for approval. All of the habits of separation are symptoms, and only secondarily causes, of our present condition.
A second reason why this is such an important question is that what is true on the individual level is also true on the collective. Our civilization is stuck in patterns that we seem helpless to alter. One need only look at the stirring pronouncements of the 1992 Rio Summit to see that. Organizations and nations routinely pursue policies that only a small fraction of their members support—or sometimes in the case of organizations, that no one supports. How is this possible? Certainly, part of the explanation has to do with the interests of the elites who wield financial and political power, but we must remember that this power comes ultimately from social agreements and not from the superpowers of the rulers. Moreover, such things as global warming or the risk of thermonuclear war are not in the interest of the elites either. So we are back into the realm of self-deception. The question I am asking is “How can the body politic, the human species as a whole, change its destructive habits?” I investigate the question on the individual level, therefore, because it might have a metaphorical or more than metaphorical bearing on the collective level—as one would expect in a universe where self and other, macrocosm and microcosm, part and whole mirror each other.
The reason that (in this particular instance—you don’t think I’d confess to you the times I have acted like a self-centered drama king now, do you?) I did not act from the habits of separation after my walk is not because I tried not to or chose not to. It is because of the attention I gave to the habits themselves and to the feelings underneath them. To give attention to a habit weakens its compulsion. To give attention to the condition underlying the habit robs it of its motivation. The feeling underlying all of my little plans was a kind of tender, helpless loneliness. I gave attention to these things without even having an agenda of stopping myself from acting on them. I trusted the power of attention to do its work. Maybe the result would be that I would adopt Plan A after all. I didn’t worry about that.
What would have happened if, instead, I had noticed my secret plan to milk some benefits out of my trek, and then resolved to stop myself at all costs? What would have happened if I’d threatened myself with punishment (guilt, shame, self-castigation, verbal abuse by my inner voice [“What’s wrong with you!”]) and motivated myself with rewards (self-approval, telling myself I was mature, better than Uncle Bob, etc.)? I can tell you what would have happened. I would have withheld from Plan A or B in the obvious ways, but I would have done it nonetheless in a way that gave my own conscious mind plausible deniability. Because if my goal is simply to pass the muster of my own inner judge, then that judge and other parts of me will conspire to arrange a verdict of innocent. I need not elaborate on we humans’ capacity for self-deception. If the motive is self-approval, then self-approval we will get, even if it comes at the expense of everything beautiful.
That sounds alarming, doesn’t it? My purpose here is not to scare you into making a change. Maybe I would if I could, but this is not the kind of change one can be scared into making. I could scare you into trying, perhaps, but the result would be the same as in my scheme of reward and threat above. No, this is the kind of change that happens when it is time for it to happen.
The habits of separation not only succumb to attention; they also seek out the attention they need for their passing, when their time has come. One way they seek attention is by creating situations, which could be quite humiliating, in which they are noticed. Another way is that another person mirrors them: the things in someone else that provoke our judgment often are within us as well. The mirroring might not be direct—for example, someone’s constant anxiety about trivial things could mirror my own lack of attention to a big thing—but I have found there is usually something in me calling for attention through the triggering person. Another way a hidden habit reveals itself is through spiritual teachings or, especially, stories, which again hold a mirror up to our selves.
I am hoping that the stories and lists of habits of separation will bring some of you readers to a curious awareness of whichever of those habits reside within you. Please do not try to stop them by force. If you do try it probably won’t work; you will only deceive yourself. Indeed, it would be a habit of separation to respond with shame, chagrin, and the desire to turn over a new leaf when you notice a habit of separation. We are not on a quest here to become better and better people. “Being good” is part of the old story. It reflects an internalized approval-seeking originating in modern parenting, schooling, and religion. The quest to be good is part of the war against the self and the war against nature that it reflects.
Here is another paradox: We become better people only when we give up the quest to become better people. That quest can achieve only the appearance of what it seeks. None are as capable of evil as the self-righteous. One amusing study showed participants packages of organic food or comfort food like brownies. Those shown the organic food displayed less empathy and made harsher moral judgments than those shown the comfort food. When you’re honest with yourself that you want that brownie as much as the next person, naturally you’ll be less judgmental. Studies like this are often interpreted so as to sound a call for humility. Unfortunately, humility is not something one can attain through hard work or an act of will. If we could, then we could also rightly take credit for our own humility. Be wary of those who strive for humility—usually what they achieve is a counterfeit of it that, in the end, fools no one but themselves. It might actually be more humble to be cheerfully immodest.
If you do notice the habit of self-righteousness, you know what to do: Give it attention. Give attention to any feelings of embarrassment or frustration, without intending to stop those feelings. Let the attention you give your habits and the underlying feelings be as gentle as you can make it: loving, forgiving, and peaceful. You can even thank the habit for having done its job for so long, knowing that it is in a late stage of its life span and will soon pass on.
Now you may sometimes experience a very sudden and dramatic release of a habit. There is even a time for declarations and willpower. That would be when the unmistakable feeling arises strongly in you: “It is time for this to stop!” It is not an anguished feeling of wishing it would stop; it is a clear, direct perception that comes with confidence and a kind of finality. If you are blessed with such a feeling, you can put down those cigarettes, or that habit of showing off, or that habit of getting in the last word, and never pick it up again. But please do not imagine that you are therefore made of stronger spiritual fiber than the next person. I take that back—go ahead and imagine it. And notice yourself imagining it. And give attention to all the other ways in which you lobby your inner judge to render a verdict of “good girl” or “good boy,” because this is one of the most damaging habits of separation there is.
You may be noticing that my answer to the question “What do we do about it?” is a bit paradoxical. Almost everything we put into the category of “doing” is itself a habit of separation, usually one of self-struggle, or otherwise drawing on some form of judgment. Really, the answer is “You are already doing something about it.” This is hard for the mind of separation to grasp. It sounds like I am telling you to do nothing. And there is a time to do nothing, but sooner or later, from nothing doing comes, a natural impulse backed by one’s full unconflicted energy. For some of you, I hope, reading this book has set a process in motion, or accelerated a process that began long ago. You will find yourself doing things and not doing things that were invisible to you before, or that seemed beyond your power.
When people ask me at talks for something practical, something to do, I sometimes feel as if they are asking me to insult them. It would be like a smoker asking, “What should I do about my smoking habit that is killing me?” hoping for me to say, “Stop smoking. You’re going to have to try harder.” We are no longer at a time when people don’t know what the problems are. That was the 1970s. Few people knew about global environmental threats then. We are also no longer at a time when people don’t know what the solutions are. That was the 1980s or ’90s. Today the solutions are legion, on every level from the personal to the global, yet on every level, we are not enacting them. And we are helpless to enact them through the means we are used to. Isn’t that obvious by now?
Sit for a moment with the thought “I don’t have to do anything. The change I seek is already happening.” Does that bring up the same feelings in you as it does in me? Feelings of scorn, a kind of swelling outrage, and a secret longing as for something too good to be true? The scorn and outrage say, “This is a recipe for complacency and therefore for disaster. If I give up my efforts, however feeble they admittedly are, then there is no hope whatever.” They also tap into the deep unease that comes from a worldview that casts us into a purposeless, insentient universe. In that world of force, if you don’t make something happen, nothing will happen. You can never let go and trust. Yet there is that secret longing too, that wants to do just that. Will it be okay? Or will the hostility of the universe that our ideology has taught us and that our society has reified once again exploit our vulnerability?
Yes, it is scary to not do, or rather, to not impose doing. Most of us have grown up in a society that trains us, from kindergarten or even earlier, to do things we don’t really want to do, and to refrain from things we do want to. This is called discipline, the work ethic, self-control. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution at least, it has been seen as a cardinal virtue. After all, most of the tasks of industry were not anything a sane human being would willingly do. To this day, most of the tasks that keep society as we know it running are the same. Lured by future rewards, chastened by punishment, we face the grim necessity of work. This would all be defensible, perhaps, if this work were truly necessary, if it were contributing to the well-being of people and planet. But at least 90 percent of it is not. Part of our revolution is the reunion of work and play, work and art, work and leisure, of have to and want to.
Our discomfort with a teaching like “You don’t have to do anything” comes in part from our thorough indoctrination into the work ethic, which holds that without the discipline of doing, nothing gets done. If there were no grades hanging over their heads, no paycheck at the end of the week, and no internalized habit of work such devices have created, then most people wouldn’t keep doing what they do. Only those who work for the love of it would continue. Only those whose work gave them a palpable sense of service, of contribution, or of meaning. In preparation for such a world, and to prepare such a world, let us cultivate the corresponding habit: in whatever way makes sense, let us practice trusting the impulse to work, and when it is not present, let us hold each other through the panic, uncertainty, and guilt that may arise.
You may have recognized the discomfort underneath “You don’t have to do anything” as akin to the cynicism that challenges our belief that a more beautiful world is possible, or our belief that even the warlords and corporate CEOs have a desire to serve that world, or that our personal choices have planetary significance. All come from the same wound of Separation. You can’t be trusted. I can’t be trusted. They can’t be trusted. What I know in my heart can’t be trusted. There is no purpose, no unfolding wholeness, no intelligence in the universe outside ourselves. We are alone in an alien universe.
I will leave this topic with a paradox. You don’t have to do anything—why? Not because nothing needs to be done. It is that you don’t have to do, because you will do. The unstoppable compulsion to act, in bigger and wiser ways than you knew possible, has already been set in motion. I am urging you to trust in that. You needn’t contrive to motivate yourself, guilt yourself, or goad yourself into action. Actions taken from that place will be less powerful than the ones that arise unbidden. Trust yourself that you will know what to do, and that you will know when to do it.
Because our habits of self-forcing are so deep-seated and often quite subtle, it might help to have a way to distinguish where your actions are coming from. Sometimes it is not clear to me if I have done something out of a direct, uncontrived desire to serve, or if the real motive was to show myself or others that I am good, to confirm my membership in an in-group, to avoid self-censure or the censure of others, or to fulfill my duty as an ethical person. I find, though, that there is a lot more pleasure in the former. Because the desire to give is a primal expression of the life-force, actions taken in the gift bring a feeling of being fully alive. That’s the feeling to look for.
In case you think that this advice belongs in a self-help book only, let me share with you a story from my friend Filipa Pimentel, a leader in the Transition Town movement, who has applied this principle in an activist setting. She was involved in a Transition initiative in one of the most depressed regions of Portugal, itself mired in an economic depression with 25 percent unemployment. The group was suffering a lot of pressure, feeling burned out, thinking nothing they were doing was nearly enough, wanting to retreat inward in the face of the overwhelming enormity of the crisis and the need.
One day, she said, they had to admit that the group was collapsing. The main flame holders had a long discussion and after many hours came to the following consensus:
They would look after each other, caring and protecting, and if one is not doing well, the others would surround this person;
Their initiatives have to come from a pure intention, generosity;
They would continuously look into their personal development, supported by the group; and most importantly,
That everything they do must come from pleasure, real desire, and their epiphanies. They decided not to engage in sacrifice, nor to prioritize action based on what someone says is most urgent.
This last principle was a response to a situation in which one of the core team was organizing an activity relating to swaps. Maybe it was just a drop in the bucket given the town’s huge unmet needs, but she was having fun and really stretching her comfort zone. Then some people in the network began criticizing the project. It was inefficient. It should be a secondhand market, not just trading, because the impact would be much bigger that way. Soon she was questioning, “Is this really going to make a difference?” and became discouraged and paralyzed. In their meeting, they realized, as Filipa puts it, “This town needs a world of things to happen, a gift exchange, a secondhand market, a farmers’ market—all these things need to exist. We can’t do it all. But just because we can’t do everything, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something.” So they choose now by what connects them, and what gives them pleasure. She says, “This is the first criterion when we are looking to an enormous list of things that can be done, most probably most necessary. When somebody is showing signs of distress and tiredness in organizing a specific activity we always ask—do you feel connected with what you are doing? Does it make you happy or do you feel that you need to sacrifice for it? If this feels like ‘work,’ stop it!”
Doing only what makes them feel good, only what makes them feel connecting, only what doesn’t feel like work … does that mean they get less done than when they were driven by urgency and seeking to be more efficient? No. They get more done. Filipa says, “The group is much more cohesive; there is freedom in expressing our feelings without being on the spot or feeling that we are responsible for all the negative stuff. I feel that, in a way, with the people near me and myself, it is much easier to give ourselves to what we do without fear, with true joy and with a feeling of belonging. Somehow, I feel that the others around the group sense that and a lot of ‘situations’ are unblocked—if the group does not flow, things tend to get stuck at one point. Since then, we do much more, in a much more positive way.”
Wouldn’t you like to do much more, and in a more positive way? Dare you stop doing what feels like work? How much more effective will you be when you “give yourself to what you do with true joy and a feeling of belonging”?
Not that there is anything wrong with work. Work and play, work and leisure … it is time to question these polarities. That doesn’t mean indolence. When I worked in construction the labor was sometimes very strenuous, but it was rarely an ordeal. I didn’t have the feeling of fighting myself or forcing myself. There is a time to make great efforts, a time to push one’s capacities to the limit. We have after all been given those capacities for a reason. But struggle is not supposed to be the default state of life.
The same applies to spiritual practice. You may have also noticed that my recipe for releasing the habits of separation corresponds quite closely with Buddhist teachings and practices of mindfulness. Ah, finally, something to do! Now we can all embark on a heroic effort at mindfulness. We can admire those (especially ourselves, who if not as mindful as, say, Thich Nhat Hanh are at least more mindful than most people, right?) who are more mindful and look with disdain or patronizing indulgence at those who are less. We can use all the same psychological apparati toward a new goal: mindfulness.
I hope after having read this far you are a bit suspicious of this plan. Could it be that mindfulness too comes as a gift, when circumstances make us newly mindful of what had been beneath the threshold of our awareness? I urge you to see mindfulness as a gift and to cherish it as such. Fully accept that gift, indulge in it. Perhaps the path to mindfulness is not one of a fierce mustering of the will. We cannot will the exercise of will—volition too comes as a gift.
18. For some examples, see Jon Hanson and David Yosifon, “The Situation: An Introduction to the Situational Character, Critical Realism, Power Economics, and Deep Capture,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 152 (2003–2004): 129.
19. Kendall J. Eskine, “Wholesome Foods and Wholesome Morals? Organic Foods Reduce Prosocial Behavior and Harshen Moral Judgments,” Social Psychological and Personality Science (March 2013).
20. As I argue in depth in Sacred Economics, discussing how local, peer-to-peer, decentralized, and ecological production methods have an added benefit of involving work that is less tedious and more meaningful. Consider for example the difference between assembly line work to make throwaway goods, and repair work for well-designed durable products. Consider the difference between monocrop farming and small-scale gardening. Between being a hotel maid and running a bed-and-breakfast or hosting a couchsurfer. Of course, some tedious tasks will remain, but these take on a different character when they are not an economic necessity, eight hours a day, five days a week, year in and year out.