Intention and Attention

Earlier this week as I was doing a few hours of mundane chores – tasks that required no mental effort – I noticed that my mind was dwelling on random things. I wondered about the kind of person who would leave a Mercedes SUV idling for 30 minutes near the open door of the dojo, while they waited for someone shopping next door. I admired the craftsmanship in a piece of artwork as I dusted it, and thought how we can be known by the quality of our work long after we are gone. I reminded myself, again, that I really ought to clean out my car. I thought about community, and how everyone contributes in their own way. I considered patching a few little nicks in some drywall, and wondered what a stray half-inch sheet metal screw might have fallen off of.

I noticed the amount of energy and creativity that was necessary to think these pointless, and sometimes negative thoughts, and decided it would be better spent planning the kids’ class I was going to be teaching later that day, or generating ideas for future writing projects. If I was going to put so much effort into thinking about something, it might as well be positive and useful, right?

So, I tried that, and within moments was off thinking about something else – maybe the design of the stepladder, or how it is that some people can’t figure out which way to drive through our parking lot. I didn’t even realize my mind had wandered off, of course, until later. “Hey, wait a minute… Wasn’t I supposed to be outlining chapters in my head?” I tried again, and again, with very little success. I was reminded of Wendy Palmer Sensei’s idea of the mind being like a puppy. It runs off, bounding after this or that, and we need to call it back, over and over, until eventually it learns to stay with us for longer periods of time. My puppy mind wasn’t having any of it. Off in the next county, like a Bloodhound following a fresh scent trail. Alas.

That evening’s class was co-taught by our teacher, Dave Goldberg Sensei, and Miles Kessler Sensei from Tel Aviv, Israel. The two of of them would be leading the Evolutionary Aikido 2013 seminar over the weekend, and this class was a little bit of a warm-up/preview for us. It was also the first class of the year at our dojo, so some of the work we did centered around the transition from the old to the new year.

First we were asked to think of something we wanted to continue from the past. I chose my ability to change direction easily. I’m pretty flexible about changing circumstances. “OK, we’ll just do something different now.” It’s served me well, especially in the last few years, switching from horses to Aikido, and from my former career to writing. Dropping this and moving on to that. I think I’ve been getting better at it recently, with practice.

Next we were asked to come up with something we wanted to let go of, or stop doing. Thinking of my inability to stay focused earlier in the day I chose being distracted. I’d like to stop being distracted from completing my intended task. Think of how much more I could accomplish, doing better work with less struggle!

And then I realized that those were two sides of the same coin – the positive ability to change focus, to set off in a new direction, and the negative consequences of taking just any new direction unconsciously. It’s especially interesting given that one aspect of the seminar is going to be opposites, or things that are seemingly opposites. Too much of one or the other can be pathological, but when they coexist it can lead to a better outcome. I certainly have some material to work with, here! And it’s important, real stuff that’s present in my day-to-day life, not some “woo-woo” philosophical ponderings to be left behind come Monday morning. I need to be disciplined and productive if I’m going to be successful, but I also need to keep the openness and responsiveness, being willing to adjust as I go.

As we were training, I kept an awareness of my intention to stay focused on what I was doing – trying to let go of being distracted. Even then my attention would wander! That technique was like something else I saw recently. Did our friends from Tijuana have a long wait to cross the border? Were we getting too close to that other pair? Someone over there looked concerned – maybe they needed help with something. My tendency to do anything but stay present was very strong, and very annoying! I’d heard people speak of Aikido as “moving meditation,” but I never really got that until just then, when I noticed how much my experience was like trying to stay aware of feeling my breathing.

I’ve seen something related to this before, about myself – in workshops with Sensei – that in my world productive work and joyful expression cannot co-exist. I have being disciplined and staying on task confused with stern, separate, dull, lonely punishment. Being expressive and happy means I’m not doing whatever I’m supposed to be doing. The opposite of that is pursuing whatever is interesting at the moment, socializing with friends, doing the laundry or even cleaning the donkeys’ corral. Work is hard, and play is fun. Even when I’ve chosen the task and it’s something I love, it triggers a part of me that rebels at doing it, and will do anything to run away.

With three intense days of training ahead I am sure I will have many opportunities to confront and examine these issues. I know there is freedom in discipline, love in work, and joy in productivity. My brain knows that. Now if I can just begin to allow myself the experience of it… I’m looking forward to the weekend, and to what comes after.

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p.s. I sat down to write this post earlier today, but found a hundred other things to do instead. Too distracted to write about being distracted. Ha! Now, after a solid, physical evening of training, I’ve finally been able to stick with it long enough (3 hours) to get it done. I’d be willing to have this process flow more easily.

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