Attention

Meditation is not easy. As Yves Raguin puts it, ‘The way of immanence is always a dark way.’ After a few minutes of saying the Jesus Prayer I simply count breaths. I count up to nine and then start again. This helps keep me alert because the natural impulse is to go on counting and it requires a little mindfulness to remember to start again after nine. It is difficult to remain focused for more than a minute to a minute and a half. This is slowly improving. Simple, bare attention is not a natural state unless the will is totally focused. The mental chatter, ideas, images, feelings etc. goes on ceaselessly. Habituation quickly sets in and attention to counting, breathing and awareness of the body is soon distracted.

The trouble is that bare attention is not dramatic. There is no excitement, no colour, beauty, or wonder. Attention craves novelty. Once it has exhausted everything within its field it relaxes and becomes prey to the next idea, image, or feeling that emerges. And yet bare attention is the key. The one thing which separates us from reality is the mind. We live in this mental world of our constructing. Physically we are present to our environment and to the others who may be in it with us. Mentally though, as often as not, we are present only to our mental world, caught up in ideas, imaginary conversations, fantasies, day dreams. Every teacher and public speaker is aware of the difficulty of commanding the attention of others. They may be physically present but, as often as not, they are not always present to the speaker. How often we walk without noticing our surroundings. lost in thought. It follows that if it is our mental world which separates us from our environment and from others it also separates us from God, from awareness of the transcendent and even from awareness of ourselves. We fail to become aware, as Tillich puts it, that ‘the finite world points beyond itself.’

 Bare attention may be boring after a little while but it is here where we are immediately in touch with reality and with God. We have become so habituated to the mode of our mental world that we are unable to appreciate the richness of reality. It is because of this attention to now, to the context of this moment, that the practitioners of Zen are so intensely conscious of nature and of the existential significance of the tiniest details – as Basho noted all those years ago. 

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