Where You Place Your Attention Becomes Your Experience…

“When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

“Humans love drama. We revel in the excitement of risk and conflict, competition and difficulty. We love to talk about what’s wrong. A time has arrived in human history where we must find that new trajectory that allows us to raise our children in ways that make happiness, confidence, inner peace, cooperation and greatness the exciting measure of our priorities…where these qualities hold more promise and are far more enticing than drama, conflict, competition and difficulty.” – Howard Glasser

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My practice of Hatha Yoga gifted me with the following insight: where you place your attention becomes your experience. My teacher would say it again and again, particularly in ‘challenging’ yoga asanas where most of us choose to perseverate on burning muscles, a feeling of fatigue, the desire to ‘get out’ or move positions (have you noticed how many times someone needs to go to the restroom during the most difficult moments in a practice?). Where you place your attention becomes your experience. Slowly over time I was able to notice all the beautiful things happening, even when I was uncomfortable or tired or about to lose my balance (or fall over for that matter while meeting my physical limits). Instead of focusing on the points of what might be labeled as ‘failure’ I practiced loving the moment: not ignoring the difficulty, but choosing to place my attention on the dimensions of my experience rooted in enjoyment rather than avoidance, frustration or ‘pain.’ My teacher always said “FEEL YOUR EARLOBE OR YOUR PINKY TOE!” – and it was always true. My earlobe or pinky toe were almost always perfectly blissful, quietly enjoying the ride…

I generally pride myself as being someone who takes the spiritual practice of yoga ‘off the mat and into life’ so to speak – which is why I was pleasantly astonished when I encountered a blind spot in my parenting: Where you place your attention becomes your experience, even with your children. For the better part of that past 18  months I have been yanking my attention to all the troubles between my two young boys: the grabbing of toys, the yelling in faces, the too rough wrestling matches, the whining and crying and mitigation of conflicts. I’ve been exhausted. I’ve been strung out. My nervous system has been taxed. I’ve been at a loss, arms thrown up in the air. How to engender peace? How to encourage kindness? Oh, and how to enjoy parenting? How to just maintain a baseline of sanity???

Howard Glasser’s All Children Flourishing fell into my life and like a lightbulb I realized I was digging my own hole into insanity and frustration by (low and behold) placing my attention on negativity in stead of positivity. How on earth could I have missed something so obvious? By placing my attention on the ‘negative’ behaviors in my household over and over again (and coming to expect these behaviors as standard fare) I was not only deepening my own experience of helplessness, sorrow and despair, but also fostering more negativity! As I read the book, I realized that the spiritual teaching of where you place your attention becomes your experience holds true (of course!) in a family system of behaviors, habits and energy exchanges as well.

Glasser’s insight on working with children (called the Nurtured Heart Approach) is straightforward: focus on positivity. It is about the “relentless pursuit and celebration of positivity” where we as parents can purposefully nurture successes and greatness. That is: place our attention over and over again on what our children are doing kindly, generously, carefully, bravely, patiently, thoughtfully and responsibly. Switching my perspective to place my attention over and over again on the smooth moments in the day, the kindness, the respect and the mindfulness is transforming my experience. Just like on the yoga mat: I can choose to focus on what can be identified as ‘problems’ or difficulty, or I can focus on what is naturally beautiful, life-giving, full of love, free of drama. These qualities of experience are ever-present, it is just that the gravitation to drama lures us, often unaware. The magnetism to conflict can be powerful. So how to transform? How to practice peace in my microcosm of life here at home?

First, switch the attention: soften the gaze in order to see the many quiet moments of sibling bonding, the gestures of kindness, the slow unfolding of cooperation and sharing, the shared giggle, the mischievous shared glances of solidarity while playing…And then: put energy there! Notice it outwardly! Help these moments grow by watering the seeds of kindness. The switch in perspective has made all the difference in my mental health – while also (hopefully) engendering more inner wealth and confidence in my children. Glasser’s practice involves not getting drawn into giving our children greater responses or more animation for ‘negative’ behaviors. It is about not rewarding ‘problems’ with our energy, response or relationship. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When mindfulness embraces those we love, they bloom like flowers.” When our own mindfulness practice and attention practice can shower positivity, positive reinforcement and loving words of encouragement on our children, we can play a role in fostering peace (inner and outer). It is a deep seeing, a looking beyond surface drama to the qualities of human greatness that reside in each heart. And, it takes great effort to live from this place. It takes great practice to choose to pay attention to the tender hearts of children (and all of us!) – the hurts that live behind and under the lashing out, the mindlessness, the fighting, the pettiness. 

The shift in attention has not made ‘problems’ or conflict go away. But it has softened my experience and helped me to see my oldest son with more tender, patient eyes. It has allowed me to live in a realm of more balance, where I can reside in greater appreciation for all the ‘basic goodness‘ taking root. Just like in a challenging yoga asana, this moment in life too presents all sides. There is pain, there is frustration, there is the need for balance and inner strength. There are physical and emotional limits confronted. There is connection. There is kindness. Then there is surrendering into what is arising, without discrimination or judgement. There is the unfolding practice of choosing to focus on Love – and choosing to see the background of basic goodness as the ground from which all things emerge.

3 thoughts on “Where You Place Your Attention Becomes Your Experience…

  1. Susan Holm

    … and in the midst of all you’re learning … you find energy to write of your experience and growth … and others learn and grow right along with you. once again, Deborah, you have bravely shared the important pieces that make up all of our lives but especially yours right now which is as full and crazy and blessed as it could ever possibly be … I honestly admire you for finding the positive ways to focus and grow in what could otherwise seem like shear madness!!! You are a great teacher and role model for the young and old. Thank you. 🙂 susan

  2. Brooke Gessay McNamara

    This post brings tears to my eyes… so beautifully articulated, Deb! There are so many moments that I’ve soaked up your wisdom as mama with Rowan and Braeden, and quietly taken note for the future. Thank you for your deep, fierce, and humble practice, which is surely radiating out to nourish our world.

  3. Ellen

    Thank you for sharing this! I relate! We are finding our groove over here, but I can always benefit from reminders like these from mamas who are in it too! My two have become so close and connected….and still every day we manage aggression, hurt feelings, using physicality instead of words….and I’m still practicing breathing, staying calm, walking them through it again and again. And then when IT happens, and they ask before taking, or say no instead of hitting, choose to be gentle instead of tease, share with generosity, help each other out, its like the freaking heavens open up! So yes to focusing on what is working, because its there, and its magic.

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