Attention: Being Human

There’s a Zen story about a great master who was asked to sum up Buddhist practice in three words.  He answered, “Attention, attention, attention.” 

Being human is hard.  Countless factors interfere with our awareness.  We’re predominantly visual, yet our sight is poor compared to other species.  Plus, our eyes are positioned forward, leaving us blind to most of our surroundings.  With brains more complex than we can even comprehend, we all have weaknesses in some areas, like memory, analysis, speed, etc.

Our consciousness is also distorted by emotions, which often swamp our understanding of what’s really happening around us.  All these limitations render our grasp of “reality” so flimsy that the Buddha said we live in a state of delusion.  It wasn’t meant to say the world was an illusion, but that we are so often way out of touch with how it really is.

We’re also physically vulnerable.  Put an unarmed human up against a lion or tiger and it’s another point for the big cat team.  Our defenses against tiny beings like viruses are even weaker.  Against the power of weather or earthquakes, we’re helpless. 

In what seems like ordinary life, too, our chances of getting and keeping just what we want are statistically dismal.

There are so many ways we’re powerless, and clueless.  Our best option for finding peace and satisfaction in life hangs by the bare thread of attention.  Like a flashlight in the jungle, we can see the way ahead only if we carefully choose where to shine it.

We strengthen our attention through holding it on the breath in meditation.  As we meditate, the attention naturally wanders, like a little bird vigilant for any threats or opportunities.  When we notice that it’s been swept up in unhelpful thoughts and we bring it back, we learn to control our attention despite distractions.  We can still watch out for holes in the sidewalk or friends approaching on the street, while being aware of our destination, emotions and thoughts. 

Attention seems at first like an insignificant thing to rely on in life, until you spend enough time paying attention to what your attention does.  A day of practice lets me study thoughts or reactions that affect my peace of mind.  I can clearly see that when the light of attention shines on mental processes that make me unhappy, they lose their power.  Often, I see their deeper causes, like childhood wounds or misunderstandings.  As the pain surrounding these hidden impairments is released, the power of attention lets me hold them with compassion and love, and they gradually dissolve. 

Mastering the power of attention gives us more control of our inner world so we can eliminate inner threats to our well being and build new, healthy mental habits.  Once we’re no longer living in the midst of emotional chaos, we have a much better chance of engaging with the world in a way that makes us, and those around us, more at peace and happy.





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