Attention: Is That All There Is?

Philip Kapleau, the American Buddhist, once told an interesting and revealing story about an incident in a Zen Master’s life. It appears this Master was once approached by a man asking for the highest wisdom in Buddhism. The Master took his brush and wrote down the word ‘ Attention.’ On seeing this one, simple word on paper the man became disappointed. He expressed his dissatisfaction and asked for further insight, further revelation about the highest teachings in Buddhism. In response the Master wrote, in succession:’ Attention. Attention. ‘ Now the man grew noticeably irritated. He could not bring himself to believe that this one word could encapsulate so much. He then reiterated his disappointment to the Master and asked for yet further clarification. In return the Master quietly wrote: ‘ Attention. Attention. Attention.’ Finally, baffled and exasperated, the man asked the Master, almost begrudgingly, what he thought he meant by the word ‘ Attention.’ The master silently wrote: ‘ Attention means attention.’

How many times in my own life I wonder, have I not paid attention? In just one single morning, this very morning perhaps, my inattention may have encompassed: brushing my teeth, shaving, washing, dressing – through to making a pot of tea, eating my toast and reading the daily paper. Even when undertaking my morning meditation I can get ‘ lost ‘ in a prolonged period of inattention where I am simply ‘ elsewhere ‘, away from the very activity I should and want to be engaged with. But this state of ‘ elsewhere-ness ‘ is just a temporary drifting away of concentration which can be gently brought back into focus. However, if I fail to pay attention to the deeper realities of my life – to the currents and undercurrents that flow incessantly through it, that try to shape, inform and define it in so many unimaginable ways – then I run the risk of excluding myself from so much unrealized ‘ what could have been ‘.

This life of ours, this mysterious, wondrous existence, is the only life we have, so let us make full use of it and that commences with developing our innate faculty of attentive awareness ( Yoniso manasikara ). Being fully tuned in to our everyday living experience is our practice, that’s all there is. Whatever skilful task we are undertaking at any particular time we should stay focused on that and not attempt to do anything else. We should bring our best efforts and full concentration to that one activity and see it through to completion and if we do become distracted in some way we should just bring our attention right back and start again no matter how many times this happens. Then we are on our way because we are starting to notice that we have NOT been noticing and in this simple act of recognition we can perhaps start to realize the implications and importance our inattention has to the larger issues that affect our lives


” Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non – judgementally. This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity and acceptance of present – moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of these moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.”

John Kabat – Zinn

Whatever experience is presented to us in our individual and collective lives warrants our attention because it has come into our lives for a reason and if we look deeply enough we may be able to see something that was never seen before. The familiar can become un – familiar, the ordinary can become extra-ordinary and the mundane can become miraculous when we penetrate the surface reality of our everyday perception and recognize the sacrament of the fully aware moment….

Rushing headlong into life – not noticing things that could enliven us or enrich us, that could sharpen and deepen our understanding of the world around us – is something we must guard against. So much that enters our lives has transformative potential for us if we allow its presence to grow and develop, but we must firstly pay attention……
At the outbreak of the Second World War Bartok left his native Hungary to settle in America. Five years later, suffering from the leukaemia, he died. The Hungarian composer knew that his time was short but his heightened sense of wonder about the natural world never left him and he came to see the forests and woodlands of Vermont, where he was staying, as a veritable treasure of wonderment and delight expressed in every glade, brook, tree and leaf.
His Thoreau-like curiosity and reverence of the natural world around him was largely a product of his creative, artistic spirit that encompassed so much more than music composition. In observing this world, especially in the smallness of things, in the minuteness of details, in the unnoticed, in the unrecognized, Bartok came to a deeper understanding of the interconnectedness of everything

It is the job of the artist to notice

Even when life gets difficult for us, as it inevitably does, there is still an imperative to maintain mindfulness and see it through because it is our exposure to difficulties, rightly perceived, that facilitates real learning and hence growth. For in our difficulties we are given the opportunity, through further exploration and investigation ( Dhammavicaya ), to transform our normal, conditioned responses and see, in a fresh light, the transitory nature of suffering that clings to us through our fears and attachments. The Buddha saw in the world around him certain human preoccupations that still very much mark our existence today. These are the tendencies, we can easily develop, to deny, ignore or avoid the troubles and difficulties in our lives. Yet it is only through acknowledging and working with these unwelcome visitors that we are able to transform them in a full process of integrative healing that starts from the one simple act of attending. Tradition states that when the Indian, Buddhist teacher, Atisa, journeyed to Tibet to spread the Buddha’s teachings he took with him an assistant whom he found to be most irritating and annoying. Atisa wanted to empower his spiritual practice, whilst in Tibet, so he deliberately exposed himself to his negative, reactive ways, vis a vis his assistant, in an attempt to transform them. We, however, may not feel too much inclined to seek out difficulties in our lives ( perhaps we feel that they will come looking for us anyway ) but certainly when we are confronted with difficulties, any preparatory work that we have undertaken to deal with them will be of benefit in strengthening our responses.

” …..where you stumble, there your treasure is….The world is a match for us and we are a match for the world. And where it seems most challenging lies the greatest invitation to find deeper and greater powers in ourselves.”

Joseph Campbell

Inattention, in its severe forms, is a kind of death, a closing down of our perceptions to the demands of this world. Life calls us to attention, calls us to notice, but how often do we miss these calls? How often do we act out on the periphery of our lives, preoccupied with distractions and reactions, rather than staying right in the centre mindfully watching and responding to what is presented to us? Attention, in its fullest expression, is the true perspective revealing understanding, wisdom and insight – all of which lead us on to perfect vision

Recently I was reading about the life and works of St Francis of Assisi and what forcibly struck me was the care and commitment he showed to the needs of others, especially the sick and poor. St Francis laboured hard and long to offer them as much help and support as he possibly could to improve their conditions for the better. His extraordinary life was profoundly inspiring in its spiritual scope and intensity – a man dedicated to a deep, spiritual practice. But eventually his health gave way and he died at the relatively young age of forty four. Undoubtedly St Francis had attended very positively to the needs of others but in the process he had failed to attend to his own needs. Yet the lost of his own life may very well have been the price he was prepared to pay in order carry out what he saw as God’s work. Others, nonetheless, may feel that this price was too high.

CONCLUSION
The mystical, spiritual path that we tread cannot be reduced to a rational, set formula anymore than the ideal of love can be reduced to a simplistic notion of physical attraction. Our spiritual path is much more than a predetermined blueprint to follow rigidly, it is an invitation, a journey, an adventure, yet unlived; which can reveal many insights along the way. It offers each and everyone of us the opportunity to penetrate borders beyond which the logical, rational mind can no longer function in terms of comprehension and understanding. But in ordet to travel this path, this unique passage which no one else can undertake for us, we do need to follow our Zen Master’s instruction and pay attention