A Field Guide to Paying Attention.

by dr j

C.E.C. Newsletter #137

“The power to concentrate was the most important thing. Living without this power would be like opening one’s eyes without seeing anything.”

― Haruki Murakami






Evidence suggests our minds wander from the scene in front of us, into waking dreams about half the time.  It’s impossible to say, categorically, whether one is better than the other, but it seems, when asked, people reported that rather than such flights giving pleasure, they left them wanting more. Turns out we might never be so contented as when we’re alive to what’s unfolding before us, when the stuff of our self touches fully the present, and the real possibilities no dream can ever quite hold.

It’s a nearly inevitable drift, being called away from our chosen focus.  As William James described, even with a simple form of attention, concentrating on a dot on the wall for instance, one of two things eventually happens: 1) the dot grows indistinct or 2) our mind gets called elsewhere.  Ask yourself successive questions about it, though, how big, what colour, how far, and you can hold your attention for a comparatively long time.  This is what genius does, he says.

I’m not sure how it feels to be a genius, but I am getting used to what it feels like to be me, and even when a medical student is relaying to me important details about a patient he has just seen, if I don’t choose to concentrate, I can nod at appropriate times, and accomplish an admirable list of mental tasks without listening to a single word.  Paying attention requires not just a decision, but a particular effort.  In this March month, we are going to explore these facets, the intention, the effort, and the successive questions that follow.  What does it feel like?  Where is it pointing?  What riches does it bear?

The historical buddha, when he was just a boy called Siddhartha, around 9 years of age, felt the pull of concentration one day, underneath a crab apple tree.  While watching the spring scene before him, ministrations of the laity, a farmer toiling with an ox in the field, he was, for a moment, completely absorbed into the scene.  It passed, and he was once again alone on the hill.  Freedom, he thought, lies in that direction. He stood, dusted his legs, and stepped into the sun.

While such full arrival may happen spontaneously, it is also something that can be encouraged by practice.  If we call our minds towards the present, they land there more often, maybe even stay long enough to explore the textures of this infinitely evolving moment and the increasingly subtle world from which possibility blooms.

Join me and our doughty explorers this month as we lay out a field guide to paying attention.  We’ve polished and sharpened cartographic tools, calibrated sextants, and each March Monday, 730 pm sharp, set out towards that unchartable, impossibly slippery, X-marks-the-now through which everything rushes. Avi’s bringing extra life vests.  I think Kevin made some snacks. Well….that got your attention.
See you on the cushion.

Dr James