David Balfour, the main character in Robert Louis Stevenon’s Kidnapped gives us a metaphor for the delicacy and power of attention and how self-pity can maroon us, cutting us off from the very things that can save us; the very things that are right in front of us.
At one juncture in the story, David is left on an island, marooned he is to think. He bemoans his fate,
“It seemed impossible that I should be left to die on the shores of my own
country, and within view of a church-tower and the smoke of men’s houses.”
he thought was an impassable body of water was actually a tidal islet. Twice a day the tides
permitted passage off the island. However he was too preoccupied by his fate,
too lost in the story to notice the reality around him, or at least the
implications of that tidal reality.
He realizes how this preoccupation has
colluded to impair his ability to see and solve the problem he is confronted
with. Finally, though, “Even I, who had the tide going out and in before me in
the bay, and even watched for the ebbs, the better to get my shellfish–even I
(I say) if I had sat down to think, instead of raging against my fate, must
have soon guessed the secret, and got free.”
The poet and author David Whyte in his remarkable book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining
Work, Self, and Relationship, amplifies
this insight, “Only those who put more energy into self-pity than into paying
attention are truly marooned.”
Balfour gets caught in a state of emotionally-driven mindlessness. His perceptions become rigid, inflexible, and incomplete.
How often does this happen to us? We are preoccupied with an emotion like self-pity, caught up in its sticky tangled web of story. Our ability to see is truncated, hasty, and impulsive. The story clouds our ability to see the solution that lies write below our noses.
The challenge is to recognize we are mired in self-pity and to pause and recognize this. Then, moving attention into our bodies we can feel the fallout from such preoccupation. After checking in with the body, we can then turn our attention out to the world again with fresh eyes and we’ll have the opportunity to see something we might have missed before. We may find the “solution” to the problem that beset us, or find out that it really wasn’t a problem at all (only our perceptions colored by self-pity made it a problem).
Mindfulness can free us from this trap and help us to navigate through the world more effectively. Mindfulness can help us to “rescue” ourselves from being marooned by self-pity.
Sport, like life, can be joyful, and some of this joy comes
from the quality of attention we bring to the sport, in addition to the
activity being fun.
However, sometimes we can get caught in a trap of trying
too hard or of getting tripped up by expectations that are strident and
unreasonable. This driven feeling can bring distress into the sports activity.
Sport becomes work and many of the patterns of feeling and behavior that are
present for us in work get transferred to play. When distress is present, a
form of compulsive behavior may be present that may be a consequence of what I
term the Strident Self.
Any activity is vulnerable to this harsh aspect of
self. I have seen this in myself with advanced snowboarding – a pressure that
is applied from within the self that is pushing towards a peak experience. The
enjoyment of the moment can become supplanted with fretful decisions – which
trail to take, and beating oneself up for not making a great run. There have
been days when I have come off the mountain bruised and broken, psychologically
as well as physically.
I remember this happening one day after a big snowstorm.
After becoming aware that I was beating myself up and not connecting with the
pure joy of the experience, I paused and sat down in the trees. I ate some snow
and moved my attention from the harsh conversation inside my head to my breath
and then the trees laden with snow, and the beauty of the woods and the
unbroken snow lying before me. I gave myself permission to be present without
expectations or requirements.
I invoked the kind of gentle self-awareness that
I try to teach my psychotherapy patients and participants in my
mindfulness-based stress reduction classes that I teach. That shifting of
awareness was enough to take me out of my head and into the moment and the full
and indescribable joy of riding the trees in deep powder.
They say, hot Buddha sweats, cold Buddha shivers, and snow-covered Buddha smiles surfing down the mountain.
This is something to look forward to as winter approaches.
That sense of place arising
from the resurrection of a word,
from death to connection.
A word, this breath,
this glimpse of the possible and miraculous
that is now.
Unfurling towards this moment,
making everything real and everything worthwhile.
This word is my signature,
vouchsafed in my heart.
Never to be spoken aloud,
or in silent conversation.
Only to be lived.