Awareness vs. Fixation

Wonderland 004

The difference between awareness and fixation is that fixation leads to regret, depression, anxiety, worry and dis-ease. Awareness leads to acceptance, planning, right action and compassion. Know when you’re aware of something, give it the amount of attention it requires and no more…anything more can and will often lead to fixation.

Simple when you think about it. Difficult in practice, right? Well, when was the last time you practiced something because it was easy in order to get better at it?

When we fixate, we tend to look for problems. We focus on what’s wrong and we dwell there. We pitch a tent, or in some cases, build a house and move in so we can fixate. Awareness is simply being aware. We don’t stay there. Instead, we shine a light, we examine, we look around. We don’t plant a flag and claim it as “ours”. It’s not ours if we’re just aware. Instead we gain facts without judging. We explore the terrain and use our awareness to discover and map it, perhaps to remember what we’ve seen, and to remember where we’ve been and find out where we’re going.

But we don’t live there.

Example: Something isn’t right. Something has happened to make us feel “a certain type of way”. Life isn’t going “as planned”. Bad news knocked on the doorstep, and we couldn’t take one more step. The moment we don’t take one more step, we have fixated. We’re fixed. We’ve planted roots and we’re settling down there for the long haul. Which is unfortunate, because we know we don’t want to live there in the first place. And yet, we feel compelled to stay.

Pretty soon, that bad news, that diagnosis, that toxic relationship, that job loss, whatever–goes from a feeling of sadness or shock to suffering and depression, or worry and anxiety. We become fixed. Then we focus on what’s wrong with blinders on, unable to see clearly what’s still working well around us. Our world view becomes smaller. We make our gratitude list smaller under the weight of what’s wrong.

And then we seek validation. “Please, tell me what’s wrong with me. This bad thing has happened. Don’t you agree it’s also bad? You seem like an expert, and I feel so worthless. Can you tell me what my problem is?”

The experts say, “Oh, yes. I see how you exactly feel. I think I know exactly what your problem is. You are depressed. You are an anxious person. You are sick. I think you may even be bipolar. You might have PTSD on top of it. I can’t imagine you’ll get any better, so you’ll just have to learn to live with this. Here–let me help you the best way I know how, because I know what it is to suffer, just as you are suffering. Here is a diagnosis for bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and PTSD. You can carry these with you into the world now as your companions. They will always be with you, they will never, ever leave you or let you down. You can count on them. In fact, you may use them when you make any other decisions you wish to make about your life. Or–you don’t have to make any decisions on your own ever again! Just allow these labels I’ve just given you to make decisions for you. And here is some medicine to make you feel better. You’ll always have that as well. In fact, you’ll take this medicine for the rest of your life so that you don’t have to worry anymore. Here is the answer to all your worries, right here in these labels and in this pill.”

And we are so relieved. If we have to live in this ugly place where we’ve fixated, then at least it won’t be so bad because we have labels now, and pills now that will keep us from having to be aware of how bad our lives have become. We are no longer aware. We’ve chosen instead to fixate. And so life goes on, if you can call it “life”. It’s a half-life, though. We are not living fully, because we are not living fully aware.

When I received my HIV diagnosis in 2007, I started to fixate. I thought I needed medicine in addition to my HIV medicine. I thought I needed a diagnosis beyond my HIV diagnosis. I needed relief from the pain and suffering. I didn’t want to accept that I was HIV positive. I didn’t want its constant reminder, and yet, I fixated on it. It was all I thought about for months on end. I awoke with it, had breakfast with it, took it to work with me, had sex with it, and laid down with it each night.

A dear friend suggested that perhaps I was grieving and I was sad, instead of depressed, anxious, bipolar and suffering from PTSD. She suggested I try meditation instead. She said, “Instead of living with HIV, what would happen if you tried to thrive IN SPITE OF HIV?”

That hit me in a positive place. I thought, if I am positive, what would happen if I started thinking positively, instead of negatively, about being HIV positive? Instead of building a house where HIV and I could live together in misery, what if I instead shined a torch into the darkness where HIV was hiding and flushed it out?

I became aware of the HIV in my body through meditation and mindfulness practice. I took my HIV medication and gradually weaned myself off the anxiety medications. I imagined that the HIV medicine was healing me from within each time I took it, and I never missed a dose. For my mental awareness, I sat down quietly, and with my thoughts, I had a conversation with the virus. I got to know it. I read everything I could about it, about HIV medications and their side effects. I imagined a conversation with HIV wherein I asked HIV what it wanted from me, and what it might have to teach me about myself, about compassion, and about healing myself from the inside out.

When I became aware of HIV rather than fixating on HIV, I became a hero instead of a victim. I found that there was more space for the things in my life–like writing, reading, spending time with friends–that I had neglected because of all the time I had spent focusing on HIV. I became aware of my body as a temple, and became an advocate for my healthcare.

I also became aware of “any experts” out there who were all too keen to tell me what I could expect to go wrong, what I should do, what I had to worry about. I became skeptical of negative voices because I was living more positively. I sought solutions instead of focusing on problems. And most importantly, I became aware of all the things that were “right” in my life.

Kevin Redwoods

I didn’t build a house. Instead, I took a journey, lit a torch, looked around, surveyed the territory, became curious instead of afraid, looked under rocks, looked in the mirror, and drew a map along the way so I could find my way through.

I let go of labels. Today I am aware that I am HIV positive, but I’m also aware that I am so much more than that.




Twice a week, I hang out with ex-convicts, recovering addicts, former prostitutes, homeless men and women, and the occasional drag queen. I lead two support groups at a center in Greensboro. Monday is a meditation and mindfulness group, open to HIV positive men and women. Thursday group is for HIV positive men.  If I’m having a bad day, I go check in with these friends and get a sweet, gentle dose of “the real-real world”. The real-real world is so much better, so much more immediate and so much more real than anything I’d ever see on Facebook, or on television. You can’t make this shit up. It’s too real for reality t.v., and it’s more compassionate, gorgeous and messy.

Here’s what happened this past Thursday.(Names have been changed to respect the confidentiality of those involved.)

Six of us gathered in the middle room of the house. Three on one couch, two on the other. Andy sat in a green plastic lawn chair by the window. He stared out for several minutes before group began. Andy shows up when he needs to be there, so I know when he’s there, he definitely needs it. He’s good at taking care of himself, from what I’ve seen. He is self contained, tight and sinewy and strong, hidden beneath layers of baggy, ill-fitting clothing, and adorned with dredlocks that reach his lower back. He looks like a vine–twisted, knotty, and tenacious. He thrives best in rocky, harsh soil in spite of the elements. Sometimes he comes to group and stares out the window, saying nothing for the full 90 minutes. This Thursday, he spoke.

It had been awhile since he joined us, so I asked Andy to ring the singing bowl to get us started. He rang it so softly, it barely registered. To me it sounded weak. I thought he was fucking with us by barely tapping the bowl with the tamp. It wasn’t “perfect”. It wasn’t “loud enough”. I opened my eyes and asked, “Did you ring the bell, Andy?”

“I did ring it,” he replied softly, “I hit it real soft. It lasts even longer than if you ring it real hard.”

“Oh, okay. Would you mind ringing it just one more time?” I asked. He did, just as softly as he did the first time. The sound was like a whisper. I strained to hear it, listening harder, eyes closed waiting for the sound to grow and wash over me like it had in the past, cleansing me and preparing me for the seriousness of meditation. Instead, it came to the edge, touched my toes and backed off. I wondered if any of the other men experienced the same thing. 

We meditated for several minutes, and opened our eyes. Andy turned in our direction away from the window and said, “I got something I wanna say at the start today.”

My first thought was, “Oh shit. What’s he gonna say? Is there going to be drama? Please God don’t let him go off on some rant or say something crazy…” Instead, he told a story.

“The loudest sound you ever gonna hear is silence. True silence. It be louder than anything else around it. There be a Sanskrit word…ancient word…it be called “mouna” and it means “silence”. It comes down from heaven and it washes over you. Other times it tap you on the shoulder in the middle of a crowd, too. Sometimes you can get there when you meditate, other times you can find it it the middle of chaos, noise, in the middle of a bomb going off or somebody murdering somebody right next to you…them times it be harder to find but it’s there. It’s always there, that silence, that darkness, right underneath everything.”

Andy looked at us and paused…silent…were we with him? He wanted to know. Our faces said, “Yes, brother. Keep talking. We need to receive what you’re serving up.”

“Why do there be so much noise in the world? Why? Because people…they be afraid of the silence…of that darkness beneath the darkness…because it’s so loud, and because they don’t understand it. But that silence is peace. It’s where God speaks to you, where you can listen just underneath all the static, all the white noise that just don’t mean nothing. Look at it like this: You got a 60 by 35 foot room. Now, in this room there be 44 men. 12 of them be over on the side playing cards and yelling, and another 12 be watching the t.v.. You got another 3 or 4 listening to the radio, all listening to different channels, two of them just be sitting there, breathing, staring off into space, but they still making noise. They still adding to the chaos. Then you got the rest of them, and they be fussing, arguing, or maybe they be lifting weights…ain’t none of them listening to the silence. They all do their best to block it out because it be so loud…that silence. It may make them have to take a good, hard look at they-selves, and they might hear something in that silence they ain’t ready to hear just yet. 31 years in prison…it wasn’t ever quiet. Not once in all them years. I had to learn to listen for that silence in the middle of the chaos…to find my peace, because everything there in that small space…in them small rooms…was doing everything it could to block out that silence and keep me from hearing it. They used to…the guards, they did…they used to have this big metal coffee pot. And anytime someone wanted to go in or out the cell block, or anytime anyone was coming or going, they would rap on that coffee pot. Three times for going, and four times for coming, with a big metal spoon. All hours of the night. Or some of the cells had televisions. And you could prop your feet up on the bunk and against the t.v. and watch it. And that t.v. would be on all night long and all day long. No quiet. No silence ever.”


He paused for a moment, gathered his thoughts, and continued.

“So you got to listen, and find your own way. Because maybe you got to get up at 6 o’clock in the morning and wash, and be ready to assist the prison doctor if he needs help sewing somebody up that had gotten stabbed during the night…during all that noise. Or maybe you work in the kitchen and no matter how much you don’t like it, no matter how much you didn’t sleep last night, you still got to get up at three and start making the breakfast…the biscuits…the oatmeal or whatever. Because the day don’t wait for no one. Because the other inmates, they don’t care if you didn’t sleep last night because it was too loud. They want their breakfast. That’s all they care about. And so you got to find that silence…that darkness behind the eyes…that place that is a peace beyond all understanding…that place you go right before you fall asleep…when you’re still awake but you ain’t awake, and you got to stay there and wait. Wait for the voice of God. You’ve got to hear the silence and lean into it…sit with it…embrace it…because it will teach you things. 

Bob, sitting next to me, asked, “What things, Andy? What things will it teach you?”

“That be up to you. It be up to what you signed up to learn…it depend on what you be studying at the time. Whatever you is supposed to hear, if you get quiet enough in your mind, you’ll hear it. You know the best thing I ever learned from the t.v.?” He waited, not answering.

I took the bait. “What’s the best thing you learned from the t.v.?”

I think all of us were en-rapt, and our mouths were slightly open, forming the letter “O”, by this point in his sermon.

“The t.v. be like the mind. It be exactly like the mind. And you know whatever you think in your mind you can make happen in the world. Like reality t.v. We create and we destroy with our mind. See, the problem with most of us now is we never have a break from it, or we forget that the t.v. be left on all the time. That t.v. be on 24/7. It be playing something all day and all night long. Used to be, when we was younger, all the t.v. channels would go off the air after 2 in the morning. That screen would turn to snow and they’d be a long beep, and then silence. And then snow. Snow and silence was all there was. But even then, the t.v. was still on. Still noise. Static noise. That’s not the darkness, not the silence I’m talking about. I’m talking about when you turn off the t.v.” 

“You remember when you used to turn off the t.v. and it would slowly fade down to that little white dot…right there in the center of the t.v. And that little white dot, it would stay there, surrounded by the black screen, tiny white dot surrounded by blackness. Then, that little white dot would go away. That’s the darkness I’m talking about…the silence. You got to get yourself to that little white dot in the middle of that black screen and stay there, breathe there, be happy there. Because the first time it happens to you, it’s gonna scare you because it’s gonna be so quiet you ain’t gonna know what to do with yourself, and then, guess what? It’s too late. You done started thinking again. You done turned the t.v. back on.”

“It was being able to find that silence…and listen to how loud it was, and how it wanted to heal me and speak louder than any of the loudest noises around me…finding that got me through prison. It gets me through when a problem comes up now. Being able to go to that blackness behind my eyelids…find that silence and peace. Don’t be afraid of it. Don’t try to chase it. Just sit with it and let it come and find you.”

I’m paraphrasing a bit, but not much. That’s more or less what Andy shared. All of us listened intently, taking in the wholeness of Andy, a man who has been arrested, charged, convicted and served time. If anyone knows the power of the present moment, it’s him.

Take from this what you will. If you saw Andy, you’d most likely walk the other way, and he’d be happy to do the same. However, you’d have missed an opportunity. Because there are the unlikeliest angels among us. I’m convinced our saints and prophets are faceless, don’t get three square meals a day and probably don’t smell too good, either. When I gave Andy a hug Thursday, he embraced me fiercely, like a brother, like a fellow warrior. And for that day in his presence, I felt blessed to be spending time with one of the wisest men I’ve ever met.

Kevin Redwoods

Happy Spring, and Namaste.