From Attention to Intention: Building Foundations Under our Dreams

Reading: by Henry David Thoreau

I learned this, at least, by my experiment: that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him; or the old laws be expanded, and interpreted in his favor in a more liberal sense, and he will live with the license of a higher order of beings.  In proportion as he simplifies his life, the laws of the universe will appear less complex, and solitude will not be solitude, nor poverty poverty, nor weakness weakness. If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.


Reading: The Guest House by Rumi



You may say I’m a dreamer, John Lennon once sang, but I’m not the only one.  We are dreamers, we humans. 

We may have big bold dreams. change the world. End racism. Big changes at work. End global warming. Save the world. 

Personal dreams: the ones that led or leading to our careers, the dreams that led to your marriage, dreams you have for the children you love.

We have family dreams: better relationships with your spouse/partner, children, parents, in laws, everyone. 

Practical dreams: to be physically stronger, to eat better, to save money, to get a new job, a new house, a new car. 

And then, we work at making them happen.

We fill up the screens of our lives w dreams and with goals and plans and to do lists. And then with the dreams and goals and plans of the children we love or spouses or friends that we want to support, and to do lists sometimes may make their way into ours.

So many of us fill up our lives and our days. 

We learn just how many things we can do at the same time. Help child with homework while answering emails. Check. 

Make dinner while talking to friend, perhaps selectively pressing mute on the phone. Check. 

Drive to work while listening to the news, checking the forecast, planning your thanksgiving meal and Christmas shopping list. Perhaps voice to texting a few emails at red lights along the way. 

We have our dreams and these days so many of us work harder try harder, plan more, do more to try to make some of them real. 

But sometimes, our dreams still don’t come true. Haven’t come true. Or maybe they just don’t feel the way we thought they would.

We give up for a while, or we give up altogether. 

We might call it facing facts. We might even call it becoming an adult. We might call it growing up, or growing older. 

So maybe we don’t push so hard anymore or don’t push at all… but wonder where the meaning went. Or maybe we still do the drill, even though it feels like something is missing.  Maybe we feel some echo of the life we’d first envisioned, but don’t know how to make that real. 


But, what if some of those castles we’ve imagined just need some new foundations? What if the joy and anticipation we once felt were not just a figment of our imaginations? What if something about how we pay attention can help us capture,  or recapture, something precious in life? 

Building foundations under our dreams. 


Some experts say we’re trying to do too much. We’re distracted. We set our intentions in the morning and by lunchtime we’re off and doing something else, our attention, is elsewhere. Our biggest dreams and goals just as far out of sight. 


In conversations with colleagues about the theme this month, one woman, who was recently diagnosed with ADHD, talked about her challenges with attention. With staying focused. With making her dreams come true. She described herself as having a Ferrari engine with bicycle brakes. She talked about her incredible energy on Sunday mornings. Multitasking, handling curve balls, juggling a dozen different needs. But when it comes to stopping long enough to submit a newsletter article before the deadline, she said, when it comes to cultivating the attention to do tasks that require more space and time, that’s a different story.

So she takes this medication now and what it does, is, it creates a pause. It boosts the brakes. Creates a space between stimulus and reaction, a little breathing room between what you’re doing now and where your distracted mind wants to rush to next, so you can be intentional about what you are doing. 

Her story showed me the insight neurodiversity can give us into the power of mindfulness & awareness. It gave me insight into the power of the pause. Her description of what happens for people with attention deficit, offers insight into how any of us might better harness our attention and return to our intentions, wherever we are on the “distractability” continuum.

The power of the pause.

I remember reading a description of the pause in a book by spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle. The book left me with a picture of the pause as lightness, a resonance, a stillness, ineffable, silence as music, as color, as an interplay of shadows on a wall. Like waking up to a beautiful moment full of spirit and sweetness and peace. 

And, this exquisite pause, it’s everywhere, anytime, he wrote. You can listen for it between the words of someone speaking. You can look for it in the space between and among objects in a room. You can find it by noticing the nuances, vibrance, or tranquility of colors in a room. You can find the pause in a flash of awareness, an instant of stillness, anytime.


When I finished reading the book I felt like, oh. Maybe this is what is meant by the idea that the holy is everywhere. 


But I’m practical and maybe you are too so, beyond the ethereal, the other thing I love about the pause is its application in my life. 


Because the pause, very mundanely? Keeps me on track. I was describing at the facilitators connection group how I’ve noticed I am like a car – not exactly a Ferrari mind you, a toyota maybe, but one that needs alignment, that tends to pull to the right, or the left. Toward things that seem more compelling. Like checking my email. Like reading the news. Like wondering why my friend didn’t get back to me. Maybe something’s going on with her, maybe I should check her facebook page. And before I know it I’m on my friend’s facebook page and then on some political commentary site and then I’m reading about the pros and cons of vitamins and it’s all interesting but not exactly where I intended to go. 

When I pause, take a breath, stop, on a regular basis and check in with myself. What am I doing? Is this what I want to be doing right now?  When I do that, and reconnect with my intention, I find my days align much more closely with my vision for how I want my life to be. I move more confidently in the direction of my dreams. And am more likely to get my newsletter article done on time. 

I’m not the only one who has found use for the pause. A friend of mine has been practicing building the pause with 10 minutes of meditation in the morning which feel useless, she says. But she has noticed that these days when she feels the urge to get up & talk to someone or when she wants to fire off an email, she’s more like to remember to give herself a moment, she said, to realize that any email that is fired is probably not a good idea… Those 10 morning minutes have saved her so many headaches, she said, and other people too.

So, that all sounds great right? More focus, better alignment with intention, fewer people mad at you. More ability to align your life with your vision. More potential to enjoy the vision you’re already living, as your wake up to more beautiful moments during the day. 

So you would think we’d all be doing it. Meditation every morning. Pausing many times a day, seeking silence, space, peace, reconnecting with direction, agency, intention.

But if you’re anything like me, one of the things you discover when you practice pausing – is just how much you do not want to pause. There, right underneath the desire to build the pause is the irresistible urge to stop building the pause. Afterall, what do we tend to do with the natural pauses already built into our day? The moments waiting for a friend to arrive. Time sitting at the doctor’s office. A few moments before dinner or even a lull in a conversation. We grab our Smartphone, turn on the TV, check news, podcasts, facebook, youtube, play mobile games, whatever. Most of us do not run eagerly toward the pause.


I suspect one challenge has something to do with what sits underneath all those activities. What do we experience, when we stop?

Take meditation, a foundational practice, for the pause. Most of us to do not sit down to the kind of crystal clear stillness and beauty that Ekhart Tolle described. Instead we feel antsy, bored, irritated, we worry that the project will be late, the living room is a mess, the kids are probably somewhere wreaking havoc and we think to ourselves, by the way, that this is a colossal waste of time. When we stop paying to the million things tugging at our attention and focus just on our breath we may find that’s the last thing we want to do.

But perhaps the most important.

Because the fact is, some of those goals and tasks and to do list items and maybe even some of those dreams that keep us so occupied, I suspect some of those are covering over something else. Something crucial. Something that may even be more important than the state of the living room, the success of that project, or whatever goal or activity we’re temporarily setting aside when we pause. 

I even wonder if some of the goals and dreams that take up our attention are acting as a counterweight to feelings we do not want to feel that are, themselves, getting in our way. 

On the one hand our work, our careers, our hopes for the children we love, our ability to get stuff done, these can be a beautiful expression of our dreams. 

On the other hand, they can also keep us pre-occupied, blocking us from tuning into things that we might need to see. When we pause and let go, even for little while, when we lift the counterweight of all that’s driving us forward, what is there, underneath? 


I think of that poem by Rumi. The one in which he talks about a crowd of sorrows visiting our home. Because we know this of course. Life has sorrows. Life has griefs. Losses, big and small, frustrations and fears. And some of those losses and griefs, the ones that have already happened, they may still be with us. The ones that were too much for us at the time. That we couldn’t make room for or fully pay attention to at the time. Whether they happened last year, or 5 years ago or when we were 5. There they are: unfelt feelings, leaving us seeking distraction or relief, leaving us weighed down, or seeking some counterweight to lift us out of them, some counterweight somewhere, maybe even in the pursuit of our dreams. 


I sometimes wonder if those kinds of unfelt hard feelings and our desire to escape them sit at the root of some of our biggest challenges, personally, and as a society.  


Rumi’s poem encourages us to welcome them all, our crowd of sorrows. To invite them in. Even if they sweep your house empty of its furniture. Meet them at the door and treat each guest honorably, he says. They may be clearing you out, afterall, for some new delight. 


What if we could be with our sorrows, whatever they are, for just a little while, bringing to them attention we did not have before. What if we can now bring to them compassion which we could not feel before. Kindness that we didn’t know before. Maybe you’ve already thought of some grief or trouble that’s weighed, on you, too long – someone you’ve loved who is no longer here. Some dream you had that did not come true. Something you’ve done that you regret but cannot be undone. Or maybe somewhere in you is some unidentifiable ill-at-ease feeling whose source you cannot name.


What if we could let some spirit, sweet spirit, take over this place, take over this space (point to heart). Sing: Oh spirit, sweet spirit, take over this place. Take over this space (point to heart). Repeat.


What if, as we feel those feelings, move through them, let them go, something lightens. 


What if, as we create compassionate space for ourselves, we create more compassionate space for everything and everyone, including the people we love but sometimes struggle to really see or hear. 


What if, as we make space for and move through our  feelings, we become more able to cherish the dreams we’re living, let go of the ones we cannot have, and open our hearts to whatever magic things are being built, with and through us, right now. 


What if in our Ferrari or a Toyota engines we left a couple of cylinders on idle as we go through our days. Monotasking I think they call it. What might open up in the space we create?


Last week I went to the funeral of a long time friend of mine who died, after a two year battle with cancer. She was someone who, in her life, paid attention. And she was someone who built deep relationships. And in the space she left behind, everywhere around,  in that empty space where she was not, there… was…  love. 


And what if that’s what’s there for us?  Underneath our mental churnings. Underneath all hard emotions. What if in that empty space, is love? 


A love that is accessible to us, regardless of what what dreams we do or do not achieve. 

A love that surrounds us, 

A love that guides us, toward simplicity, toward each other, toward some new delight when the storm has passed. 


Perhaps even just toward an appreciation of this simple, exquisite, moment. Another dimension of existence. 


Maybe this is what is meant by the holy. 


As we learn to create space, 

may we create love, 

and experience love, 

and allow ourselves to be guided by love every day. 

by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras

Westminster Unitarian Church 

November 18. 2019