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The Battle for Attention (My Experience with Gurdjieff's Movements)

The greatest battles are waged inside ourselves - the most powerful victories also happen there.

Yesterday morning I learned a new technique in a workshop on Gurdjieff's Movements called "Sacred Dances" by a powerful woman name Paz. In June, I moved onto a beautiful piece of land and old growth jungle four minutes from my favourite beach in the area. The property is owned and run by a woman named Deborah and was previously a BnB retreat centre. After getting to know Deborah's mission to revive the healing space and set a new direction for its wellness programming, I couldn't resist jumping on board to work with her. In addition to Tour de Soul, I am now in the process of directing a rebrand of this incredible venue (owned by Deborah's family since 1989) and helping her and her business partner to create Regenesis, a community for classes and workshops devoted to healing modalities that are less frequently found at the many local yoga and fitness studios in town.

We are not officially launching our full programming until the coming November, but we have been slowly reviving the space with workshops and classes, particularly so with local Tico and Indigenous practitioners and creators. Last Saturday we had a cancellation for a Chilean musical duo at the last minute. We had already paid for the cleaning of the shala but shrugged off the lost investment. Then 24 hours later, a Chilean woman coincidentally reached out that she had a cancellation of a workshop in Costa Rica during her visiting teaching series here and was in Nosara for a few short days and wanted to schedule a last minute workshop. So yesterday morning, I participated in this Gurdjieff's "Sacred Dances" offering as an attendee with very little expectations other than to supervise.

The method initially seemed very simple. Standing in a neutral position in silence. The technique increasingly became evident as an exercise in discipline and stillness. The more one would stand in this non-doing state, the more the discomforts of the body began to squirm and shout. Then we added a series of simple, geometrical movements and symmetrical choreographies with a rhythmic count. Despite the apparent banality of these gestures, a sense of the profound began to creep into the internal experience. The facilitator Paz had a powerful and calming presence, with an attentiveness to our engagement that was undeniable.

I began to notice a change in the fabric of my thoughts the deeper we went into the workshop. While the gradual acclimatization to the meditative movement became enjoyable, the attention required to stay with this procedure also felt challenging. However, the less my mental chatter overtook the experience, the more the flavour of my thoughts began to change. At one point I had a flash of New York City in my mind. Then came an image of Juilliard, the school of performing arts. Working as I do with intuition and the unconscious mind, I became curious to know why this thought had emerged from the abyss of spacious thinking.

My mind that can't resist intellectualizing sensorial experiences made a quick inference that I shared with the group at the end. The first person to speak teared up which was reassuring to me as I also felt emotion brimming up to the surface with unexpected intensity. By the time it was my turn to share, I could barely mutter the words through the sobs that wanted to burst up the passage of my throat. I kept it together to get the words out but in a way I wished I could've let the tears rush to their intended destination if it hadn't been for the day of workshops I was scheduled to teach immediately after attending this one.

I heard myself say these words "attention has always felt like a handicap for me." I imagined the younger actor in me as a child or teen, fantasizing about going to Juilliard to train and deepen my skill as a performer. Yet that goal had always felt lofty and out of reach. Was it simply scarcity or was there a deeper issue at play behind this resistance to aim so high? Suddenly, events from my life began to flash before my eyes, reminding me of a sequence of wounds that I had digested as part of my personality, part of what made me Natalie.

Always being a few minutes late. Difficulty cleaning up after myself on a consistent basis. Getting in trouble in every class in school because of talking to my peers instead of listening. Struggling to get through my homework until the very last minute. Jumping from task to task with a frenetic energy and sense of incompletion. Forgetting friend's birthdays and a sense of overwhelm in trying to get back to people on time. A recent memory came right to the fore: in my attendance to my favourite workout classes in Nosara taught by Rocio, which I have attended weekly at Nalu since moving here in December, I would always do my best to pay attention to the exercises she was demonstrating to us at the beginning of a circuit training, but by the time my turn came to perform these sequences of movements, the teacher would always have to come and correct me.

No matter how much I tried to watch and listen to the instructions, invariably I would modify an arm or leg movement unintentionally, despite being her most devoted student. We would laugh about this but the truth is, the struggle to pay attention in my own mind was painful. What did this have to do with Juilliard? The connection seemed to be that this goal to become professionalized in song, dance and word had seemed out of reach for me, despite my natural abilities. To tap dance, memorize Shakespeare and learn new dialects required discipline and follow through. And I had simply resigned myself that I was not made of those things. If I couldn't achieve something with my inherent smarts and quick spontaneity, the objective was not mine to conquer. It was for others, who were capable.

I have often repeated in my classes and clients that I do not possess will power or discipline naturally and so have devised a method of habit forming that relies on desire, automation and intuitive decision making to compensate. It works for me as I have been able to cultivate all kinds of daily practices that once seemed impossible to me as a person who lacked follow through. I have surprised myself to a large degree at staying passionate about my career for many years, being able to show up for my clients (even if I am often still a minute or two late for sessions or classes) and being able to cultivate consistent habits for wellness, spiritual practice, writing etc.

Recently my threshold for what I have felt capable of achieving has been stretched. Being at the helm of a second business at Regenesis, volunteering as the director of social media Nosara Animal Care, helping my father launch the digital marketing for his recently published book, starting a side-business/hobby in relation to food, writing my book each morning and teaching five workshops a week, in addition to my regular clients, and cooking custom meals for my sweet dog (recently recovering from stomach surgery) has felt like more than usual on my plate. When I tell people how busy I am and apologize for my delayed response to personal messages, people imply I need to simplify my life.

But the thing is, I am equally passionate about everything I am doing. It all feels on purpose. My dreams to become a well meaning mogul - a multi-disciplinary entrepreneur with integrity - are starting to feel like a reality. But I still associate 'busy' with stress. While I enjoy every task, the frenetic pace and feeling of never getting to the bottom of my tasks or never "catching up" creates a sense of urgency that seems at odds with my more meditative, grounded state. When I am not busy, I wish I had more going on, more professional momentum, more social opportunities etc. But when all that begins to get rolling, I get overwhelmed and want to retreat for a while.

So how does one sustain one's energy and attention when one's life begins to fill up like a bathtub left unattended? It dawned on me recently that if I felt panic or pressure every time my ambitions began to come to fruition, I would be sending the wrong signal to life. Manifesting my desires? No, it's too much! Slow it down! It was up to me to find a way to be zen in the storm. I had to be the one to signal to my body that it was safe even with a lot going on - especially when most of the frenetic activity was positive and passionately driven.

I tried to make the shift from "I have so much to do" to "I feel so fortunate to be involved in so many projects that excite me." I would notice a "I can't keep up" and gently guide it towards "perhaps I can hire someone to help me or restructure my scheduling process." I know well the pendulum swing between social burnout and isolation. In other words, work so hard and so constantly, trying to show up for so many people that eventually all that feels safe is to dial down the activity, hide from the world and find some repose. But when that inactivity itself feels burdensome and avoidant, the desire to stimulate new activity returns. So instead of jumping from overextending myself to retreating from life, I am trying to find the middle ground of finding peace in the midst of movement.

And so back to Gurdjieff's movements. While the sustained focus was painful at times, it dawned on me that the mind is a muscle like any other. While my biceps are sore from Wednesday's circuit class, soon they will adapt to the new weight I have been lifting and the effort will feel easy. So too with attention. I have learned that I am capable of sustaining focus despite my historical struggle with this faculty. Whether it's to write this blog, make my bed in the morning, hold space for a workshop with undivided presence or simply pay my bills on time, my sense of what "Natalie is capable of" is expanding.

Gradually freeing myself from the constraints of my perceived capacities is scary and refreshing. Every time I reach a new threshold of what I can shoulder gracefully, I recognize that this edge is unfamiliar and daunting. Like standing still and staring at a single point, listening for silence or moving through a choreography that evolves from clunky to fluid (as we did in the Sacred Dance workshop at Regenesis), what feels alien can quickly become embodied through some attentive repetition.

The idea that my attention is a muscle like any other that could be supportively trained was very moving for me. My attention span was not a life sentence, a binding of my potential I simply had to get used to and work around. Rather, my ability to sustain quiet focus was as simply trainable as was teaching my dog a new trick or routine. I felt the parent inside of me gently take my inner child by the hand and patiently show it a few steps. My father too had felt frustrated with his difficulty in learning choreography. My mother had often felt discouraged when trying to learn a new language. Simple adult functions felt like feats of heroism for me that to others were simply unquestionable circuits in their daily functioning.

We all live with these inner battles that can feel insurmountable, as invisible as they may appear to others. I have told the story many times about how my daily spiritual practice evolved from one minute of meditation to a dedicated hour of ritualistic practices (now primarily, writing and card pulling). I have maintained a consistent workout routine since moving to Costa Rica over these past seven months that used to seem a reality only available to others. I am writing my book every morning, a dedication that for most of my life felt as lofty as being trained at Juilliard.

I used to think routine was a trap that would render life stagnant and dull. I now see habit forming as a pathway to freedom. What was once "out there" gradually enters to our foreground with increasing intimacy and depth, it becomes part of us. "I want to write" gradually evolves into "I write every day" to "I am a writer."

This coming Saturday I am teaching a workshop for Soul Detective called "Forming Habits: Strategies for Sustainable Change." The online version takes place this coming Saturday, July 22nd at 1pm EST and the in person class is at Nalu Nosara on the same day, from 3:00 - 4:15 pm local time. In this short workshop, we will assist each other in building new connective tissue in our souls - neural pathways will form bridges over moats and "I can't's" will be reborn into "I do's." The person we think we are becomes one more role we can shift in and out of with a change of costume. We are teachable and as changeable as everything we find in nature. We can choose to cultivate attention and in doing so, grieve the projects we discarded when feeling incapable, while finding new openings for the person we feel destined to become.

The stillness will give us strength we didn't know we had and our patience with small steps will take us farther than we imagined possible.

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