I would like to share a few thoughts on paying attention, and to suggest that how we attend is as important as what we attend to.
In our daily lives our attention is often very erratic. We are often thinking of one thing while doing something else – our attention is divided and fragmentary. Every now and again we focus on something very specific – tying up our shoelaces or pouring tea into a cup – but even in these situations our minds may be elsewhere – thinking about where we are going, or what we will say to the person whose cup we are filling. Often, we are either tightly focussed on one task or are not really paying much attention at all to what we are doing or what is going on around us.
When we are practicing mindful meditation, we are deliberately paying attention to everything that is going on in, and around, us. But if, in paying attention, we become attached to particular things, ideas or feelings, we separate those things from the ever-changing relational field that is reality. Focusing on, and attempting to grasp, one aspect or part is to lose sight of the whole – to lose sight of the interrelatedness of all phenomena. If we focus too much on one thing, attaching ourselves to it, we separate it from the whole field of attention. Dwelling too long on one aspect of consciousness inflates its importance and separates it from the flow of experience. It is important that we attend, lightly, to the whole field, rather than any particular sight, sound, thought or feeling. Always notice the bigger picture, the whole panorama of consciousness.
Attaching ourselves, through intense focus, to one thought, or feeling, or sensation, is to become drawn into its magnetic field. So often, this means we get dragged around by the thought or feeling – pulled this way and that by its powerful attraction. By dwelling on the thought or feeling, we magnify its importance and separate it from the whole field of thought and feeling. Zen teachers encourage us to develop ‘non-dwelling mind’ – a mind that attends to everything equally but lightly – so that we are open to whatever occurs, but don’t dwell on anything in particular. This non-dwelling and unified attention, means we are free of attachment – having clear insight into our thoughts and feelings, yet remaining calm and peaceful.
To focus on particular things as if they were isolated units, rather than episodes in a continuum, is to have a false understanding of how the world is. When we divide the unity of the world into bits, objects and things, we lose sight of the wood for the trees – we lose sight of the unified whole and believe that the universe consists of divisions, categories and separations. It is like observing a whole landscape through a powerful telescope: we see clearly one small area but get no sense of the landscape as a whole. What we see is always just a fragment of what is actually in front of us.
By giving equal attention to all aspects of consciousness, without attachment, we can perceive the continuum of experiences and gain an insight into the harmony of the whole. The danger here is not that we can focus on aspects of the whole, for it is necessary that we discriminate between things in order to communicate with each other, the danger is that we come to believe that the world is actually fragmented and compartmentalised. To believe this is to be deluded, and Buddhism is, above all, a path to awakening from delusion. Awakening is to return to our original nature – re-uniting with nature-as-a-whole.
So: attend lightly – give equal attention to all that arises – maintain a unified field of attention.