Not Great but True

Not Great but True

"Giving attention steers us back to Center. It opens the vitality of the Universe and brings us back into the stream of Oneness. Giving attention is connective."

Yesterday I was clever,
so I wanted to change the world.
Today I am wise,
so I am changing myself.

There is an ongoing tension we each face between giving attention and getting attention. Giving attention steers us back to Center. It opens the vitality of the Universe and brings us back into the stream of Oneness. Giving attention is connective. On the other hand, getting attention is a form of drifting from Center. If attention comes your way, well, enjoy, but cultivating it and seeking it is paddling away from Center. Getting attention is deceptively isolating. It ultimately leads to being seen but not held.

At the core of it, giving is often more crucial to our health than getting. Giving attention is life affirming. It’s how we attend things. Inner health is often restored when we honor the need to recognize and verify. Somehow, this validates our experience and connects us to the world. However, getting attention is how we are attended to. It seems our yearning for approval drives us to be recognized and verified. Being seen somehow relieves our angst about being insignificant, at least temporarily.

For many of us, getting ahead requires getting attention. Too often, once that place is secured, we are still getting and no longer giving, and the whole process becomes self-defeating. In time, we learn that giving attention is how we get a heart.

In my own journey, it has always been a thorough attending of life that opens me to a wonder that compels me to write it down, as a way to enter life further. But early on, feeling insecure, I was admonished by my own insatiable need to be seen, telling myself, “You must get ahead as a published poet.” Soon, the way an Olympic hopeful does his laps, I was addictively going to the mailbox daily (this was before email) to withstand the faceless rejections, searching quietly and desperately for the one small yes that would confirm that I existed— all this while the wonder waited for my return.

Too often, once on our way, the momentum of getting keeps us from giving, and we resurrect the wrong kind of power. It can happen to anyone. The confusion between giving attention and getting attention is so great that we often want to be well known rather than well knowing. We often want to be great rather than true. We often long for celebrity while secretly aching for something to celebrate.

Because all young people are taught to be ambitious, I began as all young artists do—working toward some imagined greatness that might reveal itself in time if I could stay devoted enough to my craft. But along the way, I was humbled to be more uplifted by what was true rather than what was great, by what was heartfelt rather than what was intricate. It kept me close to my own experience, which when entered honestly began to reveal the common ground of all experience and all time.

From there, I risked more by entering the poems than by writing them, not sure where they might go, and found myself touched and changed by showing up in my life so completely. Well, that’s not very different than being changed by loving another, is it? Now in the second half of life, I am devoted to being in that holy space where the conversation of aliveness exists. It’s not about the words but the poetry of life that is revealed and enlivened by our honest engagement.

The process of writing and expressing—whether you become a writer or not—offers many valuable tools for living. If you concentrate on learning what those tools are and are diligent in using them, this concentration of wakefulness will help you live, and chances are that you’ll surface good writing.

Ultimately, we need to focus on seeing, not being seen, on verifying and not being verified, on clarity and truth rather than producing beautiful art. Too often, young writers want to create and write themselves rather than give voice to what they are experiencing. A Thomas Merton quote that has helped me in this regard is, “Eyes were not meant to see themselves.”

In all honesty, I can affirm what you already know, that once you’ve lived the work and done the work, you are the work. And going public with the work is about casting seeds and seeing which will sprout in the world. Regardless of which seeds come up or not, the truth we serve drips like medicine beyond our dreams and needs, as when it reaches the mother who lost her daughter just in time to revive her belief in life. Each time we give our full being, a small miracle issues forth beyond our control.

So, when feeling the pain of being lost or insecure, when alone and out of touch with all that matters, give your attention to anything, quickly and fully. And the Universe, which has always been near, will come rushing back to fill you.

This excerpt is from Mark’s new book, Drinking from the River of Light: The Life of Expression, out this September from Sounds True.

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