Raising my gaze

Having been turned inward, now is the time to look up and out to the larger world

Dare I say “Happy New Year”? Given the on-going pandemic, it is difficult to get aligned behind this traditional opening salutation of January. I, like many others perhaps, thought 2021 would bring more hope…so maybe I am a little more cautious 12 months later. However, given its the first blogpost of 2022, and in fact my first post for a considerable time, may I take this opportunity to extend my well wishes and an aspiration: may we all be happy, healthy, and live our lives with (more) ease over these coming 12 months.

Each year, in the period of ‘Twixmas’, I sit down to reflect upon the year that has been and to consider given those reflections, where do I want my attention to be focused in the year to come. I have been doing this process for over a decade now; finding it a lot more nourishing than traditional resolutions and goal setting. Like 2020 before, 2021 was a mixed year for me – the relatively more insular life that the pandemic has had me lead has been both challenging and nurturing. I have come to not just acknowledge my introverted and vulnerable self, but also honour it. I ended up taking 3 months out of my private practice work: a decision made not long after I wrote my last blog post on the importance of self-care as a psychotherapist. Everyone I spoke to in the making of that decision – mentors, friends, family – were incredibly supportive. Even my clients, who I was concerned to leave ‘in the lurch’ during the trials of the pandemic life, were encouraging. Indeed many of them spoke to me about their admiration of my move, and some even followed with their own bold move into a slower rhythm and stepping off of the treadmill for much needed recuperation. The year (which we can even think of as one 22 month long period from March 2020) has been hard.

And yet, the fact I was able to make that decision to take time out was an accomplishment. One could say it was the culmination of a long fought internal battle with my Super ego, the internal critic and master. But even with the relief of making the decision to step out from July through October, I knew a different challenge from being at my limit would arise: how to truly rest. But that story is for another time.

Part of the intention behind taking a break from work was to prepare for my re-emergence into the world. In honouring the introverted Helen, this wasn’t just about maintaining a sense of safety from disease (keeping myself and my family Covid free), but also getting used to being around people again. I have spent the majority of my life, at least my working time, online; so I wanted to ease myself from virtual to physical reality (whatever a Buddhist might mean by that!). With the University committing to teaching face to face again, venturing back on campus was the first major challenge; and I set a goal of day by day, week by week for the first term. And then…Omicron. So, my world shrunk a little again. Campus teaching was my only ‘real life’ experiencing as I prioritised keeping my loved ones safe from the risk of transmission I now represented. December was a quiet month. And once again, I am contemplating re-emergence in the hope that 2022 sees a path from pandemic toward endemic. 

Buddhists on the path of meditation are equipped with methods that alter their perceptual field which we could consider parallels how any individual might constrain lifestyle to take ‘one step at a time’. In the beginning of the practice path, the instruction is to have the eyes open with the gaze downward so that the focus of attention can remain primarily inward but not closed off to the world. Over time, we can begin to ‘raise the gaze’ – to take in more of the world and open to it. This is the metaphor I currently work with – how do I slowly increase the range of my attentional field from a predominantly inward facing focus to one that takes in the world of others? How, after nearly two years, do I shift emphasis from self-in-flux (the alchemy of the Vajrayana, the challenges of mid-life, the threat of pandemic) and to a life of service?

For a Buddhist, this is the call toward the path of the Bodhisattva, the spiritual warrior who practices not just for their own awakening but in order for all beings to realise their brilliant sanity or wakefulness. On this blog I have written a few times about a favourite quote from the late Michael Stone: “know you are already a Buddha, so you can live your life as a Bodhisattva”. I’ve made much progress in my inward facing these past two years to trust my own buddhanature* And now, I am turning my attention to how I can best serve those around me – loved ones, clients, supervisees, colleagues, the therapist trainees I work with.

More on this next time.

*still a work in progress just in case those who know me leave a comment…Its fruition comes and goes!


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