What did you say? Pay attention!
As we begin another semester, how many times will you find yourself uttering the following: Are you listening? Pay Attention!
How do we focus on the Now or even be conscious of it, since neuroscientist, Dr. Bruce Lipton in his book, The Power of Belief, maintains that 95% of our lives are spent in the unconscious mode as opposed to the critical, conscious mode of presence to the moment.
In essence, we are sleep-walking through much of our lives. How do we place ourselves in the moment of most potential? How have our mental patterns become our prisons of habits of the mind? What have we missed today that passed us by previous days only waiting to be discovered? Can we pay attention, stay aware, alert, and awake? Evelyn Underhill writes that “For lack of Attention, a thousand forms of loveliness elude us everyday.”
One day I saw a cardinal perched on a birch tree branch calling for its mate. This existential moment gave me the opportunity to pay attention, to experience a heightened awareness, and to leave the world of automatic pilot. I drank in the moment and soon thereafter I wrote a Haiku –“Cardinal, Bright Red/ sitting on the edge of spring / aflame for summer.” There are moments of opportunity, epiphanies, and insights that we miss because we are hurried or harried or our eyes are glued to our cell phones to the point of addiction, attentive to the next twitter or text message or pouring through a deluge of e-mails. The philosopher Ram Dam writes: “How can I be here if I am always there.”
The word meditation means to “stand in the middle” and contemplation means “a point between two temples.” “Meditation is not a means to an end. It is both the means and the end.” – J. Krishnamurti. Meditation heightens our awareness and powers of observation and attention. There is in each one of us a stillness or a point in the hourglass of our attentiveness through which the sands of our experiences, perceptions, learning, and understanding pass. Why not be prepared to be still, to look long, and to ponder these sands passing through the midpoint of our minds and hearts. The Western philosophical mindset is “don’t just sit there, do something!” while the Eastern philosophical mindset is “don’t just do something, sit there.” I am reminded of a Ziggy cartoon where he is cleaning house and thinking, “Maybe instead of human beings, we should be called human doings.”
A story is told about students who asked their teacher, a Zen Master to write out some maxims that are of the highest wisdom. The Master took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.” The students said, is that all? Can you add any more wisdom? The Master took the brush again and wrote twice running – “Attention, Attention.” The students were confused at first and then frustrated at the superficiality of their teacher’s responses. The Master takes up his brush a third time and wrote: “Attention, Attention, Attention.” Now the students were up for grabs and demanded, “What does that word “Attention” mean anyway?” The Master answered gently: “Attention means Attention.”
For most of us whose attention span may be twelve minutes at best, we are plagued by a spaghetti bowl of opinions, thoughts, reflections, distractions, and ideas that often lie to us. You do not have to pay attention to every thought that slips into the hallways of your mind. Philip Kapleau, developer of “bare attention” comments that “bare attention is virtually impossible; our lives are not centered on reality itself but our ideas about it.” Bare attention is seeing clearly without indulging in distracting thoughts. We need to train ourselves to pay attention which is a skill and an art.
Maybe, if we are in the classroom, we might do well to spend the first 5 minutes helping our students to pay attention by getting them in touch with their breathing, and removing the distractions that inhibit them from learning, understanding, and focusing on the moment. Have them practice the 4, 5, 6 technique: breathe in through your nose for 4 seconds, hold your breath for 5 seconds, and exhale through your mouth for 6 seconds.
Then introduce your students to a conscious modality of critical thinking to be used over the course of the semester:
What? —What is it that I know?
Reasons? —what are my reasons behind this idea? How do I know what I think I know? What is the evidence? Is it credible? What is the point of view?
Assumptions? —what are the assumptions underlying what I claim to know?
Inferences/Implications?— what inferences can be drawn from this statement? What are the implications? What difference does it make? What is its significance? Why do I think so? Who cares? Who said?
True?—Is it true? Why do I think so? What else do I need to know or understand before deciding if it is true or not?
Examples? —What would be a good example of this? How is this example connected with other ideas? Can I think of any examples of this in contemporary life?
Counter examples — Can I think of counter examples? Can this idea be reconciled with this counter-example? Are there any contradictions?
Socratic Seminar International—www.SocraticSeminars.com
The great psychologist, William James wrote in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: “The whole drift of my education goes to persuade me that the world of our present consciousness is but one out of many worlds of consciousness that exist, and that those worlds most contain experiences which have a meaning for our life also.”
Now, pay attention to this last story. A young boy traveled across Japan to the school of a martial artist. “What do you wish for me?” the martial artist asked. “I wish to be your student and become the finest martial artist in the land,” the boy replied, “how long must I study?” “Ten years at least,” the master responded. “Ten years is a long time,” said the boy. “What if I studied twice as hard as all your other students?” “Twenty years,” replied the master. “Twenty years! What if I practice day and night with all my effort?” “Thirty years,” was the master’s reply. “How is it that each time I say I will work harder, you tell me that it will take longer?” the boy asked. “The answer is clear. When one eye is fixed upon your destination, there is only one eye left with which to find the way. Thus, it is imperative that you pay attention.”
In conclusion, attention is the art and practice of mindfulness. With repeated practice, we give up our endless search for happiness and fulfillment in the next moment only to learn that if we are more present to the Now, we experience a consciousness of the moment, a heightened awareness, and a flooding our brain with potential for understanding and learning the subject matter at hand. Even our most mundane practices can be performed with mindful precision.