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Thread: Attention means attention

  1. #1

    Attention means attention

    I just wanted to share an excerpt from Joko Beck's book "Nothing Special". This is from a chapter called "Attention means attention".
    It is a bit long...sorry...but I thought it is really direct and insightful. Enjoy!

    "There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichu, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.” Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.” The student said, “Is that all?” The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.” The student became irrit- able. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.” In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.” In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word attention mean?” Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”
    "We’re determined that life go as we want it to go. When it doesn’t, we’re angry, confused, depressed, or otherwise upset. To have such feelings is not bad in itself, but who wants a life dominated by such feelings? When attention to the present moment falters and we drift into some version of “I have to have it my way,” a gap is created in our awareness of reality as it is, right now. Into that gap pours all the mischief of our life. We create gap after gap after gap, all day long. The point of practice is to close these gaps, to reduce the amount of time that we spend being absent, caught in our self-centered dream. We make a mistake, however, if we think that the solution is that I pay attention. Not “I sweep the floor,” “I slice the onions,” “I drive the car.” Though such practice is okay in the preliminary stages, it preserves self-centered thought in naming oneself as an “I” to which experience is present. A better understanding is simple awareness: just experiencing, experiencing, experiencing. In mere awareness there is no gap, no space for self-centered thoughts to arise. At some Zen centers, students are asked to engage in exaggerated slow-motion actions, such as slowly putting things down and slowly picking them up. Such self-conscious attention is different from simple awareness, just doing it. The recipe for living is simply to do what we’re doing. Don’t be self-conscious about it; just do it. When self-centered thoughts come up, then we’ve missed the boat; we’ve got a gap. That gap is the birthplace of the troubles and upsets that plague us. Many forms of practice, commonly called concentrative meditation, seek to narrow awareness in some way. Examples include reciting a mantra, focusing on a visualization, working on Mu (if done in a concentrated way), even following the breath if that involves shutting out the other senses. In narrowing the attention, such practices quickly create certain pleasant states. We may feel that we have escaped from our troubles because we feel calmer. As we settle into this narrow focus, we may eventually go into a trance, like a drugged and peaceful state in which everything escapes us. Though at times useful, any practice that narrows our awareness is limited. If we don’t take into account everything in our world, both mental and physical, we miss something. A narrow practice does not transfer well to the rest of our life; when we take it into the world, we don’t know how to act and may still get quite upset. A concentrative practice, if we’re very persistent (as I used to be), may momentarily force us through our resistance, to a glimpse of the absolute. Such a forced opening isn’t truly genuine; it misses something. Though we get a glimpse of the other side of the phenomenal world, into nothingness or pure emptiness, there’s still me realizing that. The experience remains dualistic and limited in its usefulness. In contrast, ours is an awareness practice that takes in everything. The “absolute” is simply everything in our world, emptied of personal emotional content. We begin to empty ourselves of such self-centered thoughts by learning more and more to be aware in all our moments. Whereas a concentrative practice might focus on the breath, but block out the sound of cars or the talking in our minds (leaving us at a loss when we allow any and all experience back into consciousness), awareness practice is open to any present experience—all this upsetting universe—and it helps us slowly to extricate ourselves from our emotional reactions and attachments. Every time we have a complaint about our lives, we’re in a gap. In awareness practice, we notice our thoughts and the contraction in our body, taking it all in and returning to the present moment. That’s the hardest kind of practice. We’d rather escape this scene entirely or else stay immersed in our little upsets. After all, our upsets keep us the center of things, or so we think. The pull of our self-centered thoughts is like walking through molasses: our feet come out of the molasses with difficulty and then rapidly get stuck again. We can slowly liberate ourselves, but if we think it’s easy, we are kidding ourselves. Whenever we’re upset, we’re in the gap; our self-centered emotions, what we want out of life, are dominant. Yet our emotions of the moment are no more important than is replacing the chair at the table or putting the cushion where it should be. Most emotions do not arise out of the immediate moment, such as when we witness a child hit by a car, but are generated by our self-centered demands that life be the way we want it to be. Though it’s not bad to have such emotions, we learn through practice that they have no importance in themselves. Straightening the pencils on our desk is just as important as feeling bereft or lonely, for example. If we can experience being lonely and see our thoughts about being lonely, then we can move out of the gap. Practice is that movement, over and over and over again. If we remember something that happened six months ago and with the memory come upset feelings, our feelings should be looked at with interest, nothing more. Though that sounds cold, it’s necessary in order to be a genuinely warm and compassionate person. If we find ourselves thinking that our feelings are more important than what is happening at the moment, we need to notice this thought. Sweeping the walk is reality; our feelings are something we’ve made up, like a web we have spun in which we catch ourselves. It’s an amazing process that we put ourselves through; in a way, we are all crazy. When I see my thoughts and note my bodily sensations, recognize my resistance to practicing with them, and then return to finishing the letter I’m writing, then I’ve moved out of the gap into awareness. If we are truly persistent, day after day, we gradually find our way out of the gooey mess of our personal lives. The key is attention, attention, attention. Writing a check is just as important as the anguished thought that we won’t see a loved one. When we don’t work with the gap created by inattention, everyone pays the price. Practice is necessary for me, too. Suppose I hope that my daughter will visit me at Christmas, and she calls to say she’s not coming. Practice helps me to continue to love her, rather than becoming upset that she’s not doing what I want. With practice, I can love her more fully. Without practice, I would simply be a lonely and cantankerous old lady. In a sense, love is simply attention, simply awareness. When I maintain awareness, I can teach well, which is a form of love; I can place fewer expectations on others and serve them better; when I see my daughter again, I don’t have to bring old resentments into the meeting and am able to see her with fresh eyes. So the priority is right here and now. In fact, there’s only one priority, and that’s attention to the present moment, whatever its content. Attention means attention."
    Gassho, A

  2. #2
    Thanks Andrea! This seemed spot on.


  3. #3
    Thanks for sharing!
    Gassho, Kaishin
    Kaishin (開心, Open Heart)
    Please take this layman's words with a grain of salt.

  4. #4
    Thank you for sharing.

    In Shikantaza, our way of approaching this may be a bit different expression from Joko's way (she was very influenced by Vipassana practice in her later years). So, instead of emphasis on "attention to the present moment" or some such, perhaps in Shikantaza one might express "just thoroughly allowing the present moment to be as it is." It is not really a matter of attention or noticing or being "mindful", so much as a complete and radical allowing without resistance.

    Then the hard borders between what the little self wants (X), and how the world is whether we like it or not (Y) soften ... and the hard borders between the little self and all the world soften, or fully drop away.

    But the point is the same. To adjust what Joko says a bit ...

    We’re determined that life go as we want it to go. When it doesn’t, we’re angry, confused, depressed, or otherwise upset. To have such feelings is not bad in itself, but who wants a life dominated by such feelings? When [Shikantaza] falters and we drift into some version of “I have to have it my way,” a gap is created in our awareness of reality as it is, right now. Into that gap pours all the mischief of our life.

    Gassho, J
    Last edited by Jundo; 05-20-2013 at 01:50 AM.

  5. #5
    Thank you for this thread ...

    So, until X is Y and Y is X ... I will continue to just sit.


  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by Shingen View Post

    So, until X is Y and Y is X ... I will continue to just sit.
    for this thread ...
    Likewise I find I can't officially start my day unless I sit. It's better than coffee!


  7. #7
    Sometimes the differences in these approaches are so subtle I can't see the difference

    I find it helpful when there is a lived example from a teacher's life to chew on (in this case Joko's daughter not visiting at Xmas.)
    It's a while since I read Joko's books but I seem to remember she often uses such examples. The thought that struck me was that there was a kind of denial over certain situations. As much as I admire the work of Thich Nhat Hahn I find the same - especially as regards his grief over the death of his mother - even though he expresses very clearly that mindfulness is not about repression or suppression.

    I think there is an important - but very subtle - distinction between what is taught here and other approaches but I don't always get it.

    If we take the example of Joko's daughter it's interesting to think on 'expectations'. I'm not at all sure that it's wise to view all expectations as as a self-imposed form of craziness. I reckon expectations are the other side of another no sided coin that extends into care within personal relationships and ethics in a global sense. It's actually quite important to have expectations of oneself and other people.

    That gap we sometimes fall into may well be our moral compass - it isn't all self-referential indulgence.

    Just a few thoughts


    Last edited by Jinyo; 05-20-2013 at 09:02 AM.

  8. #8
    Hi Willow,

    I always preach here that our way is "expectations without expectations" and the like. We expect and hope that our daughter will show up or our mother will be healthy as we want things to be. Simultaneously we drop all demands and expectations. Like two sides of a no sided coin. A healthy kind of shizophrenia perhaps.

    Gassho, J

  9. #9
    Is there any situation where you might find it impossible (or possibly unwise) to drop a demand or expectation?



  10. #10
    Sometimes I expect or demand something: For example, I demand that everyone in my country will someday have a right to decent health care and a warm place to sleep (though it may not happen yet), and I expect that the sun will come up in the morning.

    Sometimes I drop my expectations and demands: For example, I do not expect and demand to live forever or to fly to Mars (I would like to fly to Mars, but so unlikely I have resigned myself to not going).

    But ALWAYS, in all the above cases, I simultaneously drop all expectations and demands radically to the marrow ... and thus also drop all thought of life and death, sickness vs. health, here on earth and there on distant planets, and the passing time of the sun's rising and falling.

    I don't know why that is so hard for some folks to get.

    Gassho, Jundo
    Last edited by Jundo; 05-21-2013 at 12:37 AM.

  11. #11
    Hi Jundo,

    I can't clearly articulate why it's hard for some folks (including myself) to get it at times - it just is.

    ..... but there's a process taking place that I trust to - so I don't want to over-analyze why I sometimes don't get it - I prefer to believe that someday, with a little help and guidance from my buddhist friends and teachers, I simply will



    Last edited by Jinyo; 05-20-2013 at 08:23 PM.

  12. #12
    Coincidentally I have been reading this book too at the same time. This is an amazing book. The main getaway from the book is "how you can extend your zazen to daily life". All good teachers tell that it is important to use 24 hours of our daily life not just our sitting period but the specifics and details have been discussed very well (in the form of Q & A) in this book. I got this from the library but am now thinking about buying this.

    - Sam

  13. #13
    For example some tips for bringing zen into daily life:

    - Don't "try" to be aware of what you are doing. Trying to be aware is duality. Just like mindfulness has been misunderstood.
    - When you do something, just do that, be one with the action
    - This moment is what is real and what is more important. We create a gap by getting caught up in fantasies, thoughts and missing what is happening now. What is happening now is never interesting to us but it is the only thing thats real. This moment is all there is, it is the most important thing, this moment which is nothing special.
    - In Zen retreats it is emphasized to do little things with attention, like holding your chopsticks, moving your cushion etc...; these little things are what your present moment is made of and attending to them with full awareness is more important than thinking about your work problems or how to fix your issues with your girlfriend
    - Instead of trying to be aware of the thing at hand, what we can do is to notice these gaps when we are caught up in our thoughts and fantasies. Just noticing. If you are thinking, and you are aware of it then it is fine.
    - Along with five senses, functional thinking is the other sense and engaging in any of these with full awareness is being in the present moment. Being with our senses fully grounds us to the present moment. At first though we can attend only one sense at a time (say listening but not smelling), the more relaxed we are we can take in all the senses at once. Being in the present moment means being with our senses, being one with what's happening

  14. #14
    Good tips. Especially.... 'what we can do is to notice these gaps when we are caught up in our thoughts and fantasies. Just noticing. If you are thinking, and you are aware of it then it is fine. '

    The tendency is to become lost (attached to) in a spiral of thinking and feeling - a dream. practice is the awakening from this. Attention to what is. Then everything is no problem. You just deal with it as best you can moment to moment.

    Because of all the karma and habits built up, its not always easy but being willing to experience the unpleasant is part of the practice. I would say that 90% of the unpleasantness is created by our thinking.

    Excuse my rambling and over thinking.
    無 (MU, Emptiness) and 氷 (HYO, Ice) ... Emptiness Ice ...

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