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Art of Attention: Are You a Servant to Your Best Self or a Slave to Your Worst?

Would you rather be an unconscious slave to every thought, circumstance and negativity, or a conscious servant to the highest, to your heart?
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Allow me to preface this post: my intent here is to begin a dialogue. After receiving much-appreciated feedback on the first draft of this piece from trusted colleagues, it's clear that this is an important distinction, and that I may not please everyone with my articulation. I simply want everyone to see that we are all the same. This piece marks the beginning of a deep truth-telling that I'm engaging in my own life, and I'm seeing that I've been fighting against the truth for too long. If we cannot be honest now, we will keep fighting ourselves later.

A couple of weeks ago I taught that we have a choice at all times: slave or servant? Would you rather be an unconscious slave to every thought, circumstance and negativity, or a conscious servant to the highest, to your heart?

Note: "highest" for me doesn't have religious implications; it points to my highest, most conscious behavior. And from the looks I got from my students when I spoke of this in class, I realized we all needed to redefine the word "servant," so here goes.

Ten years ago a respected teacher taught me that true learning and progress on the path revolves around service. I misunderstood her at the time, so in my twenties and thirties I helped in soup kitchens and tutored kids -- but I wasn't coming from a place of pure service. I was doing it because I thought I should, and while it was certainly helpful, I wasn't conscious, but it was a start.

As a "servant," you offer your highest attention and care in the most mundane moments. A simple example: when you prepare your breakfast, stay awake and do it consciously. That way, no matter what you're doing, you're amassing moments of real consciousness in your own body. Serve your family, your partner, your profession, your friends or your own healing by making every conversation and interaction an intentional act.

And if it seems like "serving" implies lower status or weakness, highlight this: conscious service is not about giving away your power; to consciously serve by being attentive in any context actually magnifies your power and magnetizes abundance in your direction. I've noticed that when I'm attentive in my simplest movements consistently throughout just one day, the return is tangible: my son sings to me, a new client rings me or someone showers me with gratitude. It always works that way.

Let's set out the rough stuff first.

Examples of slavery
(implying disconnection and contraction; brain-centered):
  • Judgment of anyone, anytime, for anything
  • Competitive comparison to others
  • Obsessive striving for perfection
  • Saying you'll do something and then not doing it
  • Addiction of any kind
  • Lying, even to "protect" someone else or yourself
Examples of service
(implying spaciousness and expansion; heart-centered):
  • Listening well, no matter what (and if it's hard, use soft eyes here)
  • Teaching humbly from your own experience
  • Consciously cooking and/or cleaning your space
  • Telling the truth / having a difficult conversation elegantly
  • Encouraging other people in your life to do what they do well
  • Breathing deeply in any moment (and see how patient you become)

In my experience, I'm an unconscious slave to opinions, sensations, thoughts, clothes, people, substances, doubt, fear and pride, to list a few. Recently I realized that I've been a slave for 25 years to an incorrect assumption, thereby blocking myself from a real relationship with my own sister for that long. How is it that countless times a week, I intend to say one thing and instead say something damagingly different? To rearrange this misuse of my energy, I have to stay super awake and hold an awareness of my behavior, all day long. Yes, it's daunting, but I'm here to report that it's possible.

Both slave and servant fall under the same umbrella of who-we-are. We cannot serve unless we've first seen our slavery, and we need to see the slavery to locate our potential to serve and align ourselves optimally. The habits and "flaws" are the gifts, lighting the path to our highest potential. In the beginning we must be consistent in noticing and actually noting the moments of slavery, in order to move past them and into service. Making lists of those moments, recently on notes in my phone, really helps. I can't forget the general behavior when when the particulars are written down in front of me. And when it's right there, I'm less likely to do it again.

Example: On Halloween this year, right after my four-year-old son and I were marveling at the peacefulness of our morning (one of those shining moments when I spent an hour actually being his mother rather than a petulant teenager), he dropped his trick-or-treat plastic pumpkin into a puddle. Precisely 30 seconds after my genius mothering proclamation, I made him feel clumsy and ashamed for dropping it. That's my slavery to control (which I've noticed is very popular among parents of toddlers in New York City). I've learned that all of my rushing, doubt and judgments are manifestations of this controlling obsession, and I'm shifting. After reading of Allan Schore's findings on shame in "The Biology of Transcendence," each time I shame my child, I immediately apologize, talk about it with him and hug him, so that his brain can shift out of survival mode and back into creative play mode. And together we've designed consequences for my anger (via my studies with the Handel Group): each time I get angry, I have to put $5 on the sidewalk. Ten dollars went on the street this morning; it feels weird, and it's supposed to.

Allegedly it takes about four to six weeks to evolve a tendency toward slavery, or "trait," as it's articulated in Handel Group methodology, when we're employing consequences for the bouts of slavery, like I do with my kid. I plan on delving deeper into the consequences in a future post.

When I teach this in the context of yoga class, I reiterate the same question: slave or servant? Yoga mat or sidewalk, we're slaves to the same forces: disappointment, frustration, fear, pride -- you name it. And when the slavery seems most intensely insurmountable, it's exactly then that you're seeing yourself and can devise a strategy. Here are some simple strategies you can employ on your mat: soften your eyes, breathe into the back of your heart so deeply that your internal space is more vast and expansive than you've ever felt in your life. Clear any contracted places, create a coherent heart rhythm and shift the oncoming reaction.

Off the mat, when you notice yourself in a state of slavery, please remember that it's not getting worse, you're just seeing more. And the blocks are loosening their hold on you every time you look consciously. My mission is to serve by listening attentively and being truthful.

How do you serve?