One of my favorite books is Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance, in which she discusses the concept of “widening the lens of attention.” (You can tell this is a book I’ve turned to again and again, given the amount of coffee stains on its pages!)
I thought about “widening the lens” while working with a client the other day. Something unexpected had come up in her life, and she was feeling overwhelmed. I could so relate to the feeling that this one thing had popped up and made everything feel unworkable.
And I was reminded that when we press up against a particular, seemingly unsolvable issue, like pressing our face to a window pane, we can lose sight of the context, and the spaciousness, in which the issue lives.
At the core of most overwhelming life issues is fear, and Tara writes about the importance of relating to our fear rather than acting from fear. Fear can narrow our focus, constricting our awareness until all that seems to exist is the issue before us.
This is a good thing when, say, we’re sitting in our living room and we smell smoke coming from the kitchen. For more complex issues — those tangled, sticky ones that seem like they have no solution (and in which there is no true emergency), it’s not so effective!
Our minds will tell us that we must combat a seemingly unsolvable problem until we have a solution — that’s what minds do. That’s why, when we’re “pressed up against it” like this, it’s important to “widen the lens” — to expand our field of awareness so that we create “right distance” from the problem.
This doesn’t mean that the problem ceases to be an issue (well, sometimes that actually does happen!). But it does mean that we become aware that this “insurmountable issue” is not the only thing in our lives — that there are things that are working very well alongside this challenging issue.
And so often, I’ve found, when we let go of the struggle around a particular issue, we can take cues from what is working. This allows us to see that a) we’re not in control of everything, and b) the problem, when viewed with more detachment and from a calmer place, may be just waiting for us not to solve it, but to change our relationship to it.
This is one of the reasons I do my “what worked well today?” evening pages exercise at least several times a week. Asking this question in my journal, and hand-writing the answers, helps connect me more deeply with what is going smoothly in my life — sometimes without a shred of conscious input from me! (Some of my clients have done variations on this exercise, such as “What did I appreciate today?” “What can I appreciate about myself today?” and “What inspired me today?”)
The poet Hafiz wrote, “Troubled? Then stay with me, for I am not.”
When we can ask the parts of ourselves that are not troubled, that are calm or confident or relieved, to weigh in on that really big problem that just won’t get solved, we are accessing an alternative way of relating to the issue, and we realize, in fact, that there may be many other ways of relating to it.
It may continue to be a problem, but we’ve been so anxious we’ve been missing the solution, which has been there all along.
Or, we may see that the “problem” is more of a path, through which we are learning about who we really are and what we really value.
The “problem” may also be a teacher, showing us that it’s not what happens to us but how we choose to respond to it that is key.
The problem may be directly or indirectly connected to systemic issues over which we do not have immediate control, and allowing ourselves to acknowledge this (rather than blaming ourselves for it) may point us to where we have true control and where we do not.
Or maybe, when we widen the lens, we realize that, with gentleness, the problem begins to evaporate — it was our own harshness toward ourselves that created it to begin with.
This was the case for me when recently I was judging myself for being confused about something, and for “doing it wrong.” When I met with a few others who were dealing with the same thing, it turned out they, too, had felt confused and concerned they were “doing it wrong.” We all realized that the information we had been given about said thing actually was incomplete and confusing, and therefore there was no “right” way to move forward with it.
Connecting with the group allowed me to recognize our common humanity — we were all being hard on ourselves and concerned about “getting it wrong.” How human of us! I realized that when I was able to let go of being harsh with myself, I could see that the “insurmountable problem” was simply a need for more complete information — and gentleness around all of this.
I’ve written here that during the pandemic my partner and I have created a practice of taking drives that help us feel more connected with with the broader world outside our home, and, particularly, with nature. After these drives, I always emerge from the car with a lightened sense of being, and a broader perspective on what I’m struggling with.
These drives support me in “widening the lens.” Walking does this for me, as well, as did connecting with others in the example above. I’ve written previously, too, about “puttering time” — that’s another way I bring in new perspectives for myself, by loosening my grip on whatever is troubling me and shifting my energy, allowing more flow.
What are your ways of shifting your relationship to an issue that feels overwhelming or insurmountable? How do you widen your field of awareness? I’d love to hear from you.
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