The words startled me. They were as clear as if they had been spoken aloud, and yet there was only silence around me. For a few moments I sat there, wondering about the words, where they had come from, what they meant. Iíve always been skeptical of purported "supernatural" things, even as I have come to accept the fact that our unconscious minds create a lot of what we see and hear, or think we see and hear. So I assumed that the environment I was in at that moment, a Quaker meeting, had stimulated something in my own mind that manifested in my "hearing" the words, Pay attention!
I had only recently been introduced to the Society of Friends, and was intrigued by their emphasis on individual insight arising in the silence of a community gathering. The few meetings I had attended were mostly silent, occasionally punctuated by someone offering aloud some bit of wisdom that had come up in her or his meditation. However, there was no way that I could have stood up in that silence to report what had come to me. It did, however, occupy my thoughts for the remainder of the meeting.
Those words, often spoken in annoyance or even in anger, were familiar to me from my childhood. (Itís possible that my behavior made them necessary at times.) They were the words of Authority, part of my education, formal and informal. It was easy enough for me to rationalize my experience in the Quaker meeting as my Freudian superego taking charge. I canít recall what I had been doing or thinking about when they occurred.
Nearly fifteen years later, I remembered that experience as I began to study insight meditation, a Westernized version of vipassana from the Buddhist tradition imported from Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. "Paying attention" is the core of insight meditationópaying attention to the six senses, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, and the activity of the mind/heart. Because we so often filter these inputs with desire, aversion and/or illusion, what is actually there is often lost to us. We live in a world not of reality but of delusion. Even if nominally awake, we are usually unawareówe are asleep.
The injunction to pay attention! in my childhood always meant to pay attention to someone else, or at least to some event outside myself. So part of my confusion in that Quaker meeting had to do with trying to figure out to whom I was supposed to pay attention. In my agnosticism, I rejected the idea that it might be to God. Today, I suppose, I accept the idea that it came from inside my own mind, somehow, a bit of wisdom that I canít really take credit for but that has turned out to be prophetic for me over the years.
When I was introduced to Buddhist teachings, the arcane language of the texts kept them distant from my everyday life. "Enlightenment" was as elusive to my understanding as "heaven" had been when I still considered that possibility. I was delighted to discover the writings of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a therapist and teacher who emphasizes a practical benefit of meditationóstress reduction. He writes easily and clearly, yet with depth of understanding. It was in an interview with him in the pages of Inquiring Mind that the words pay attention came to me again. They are his kind of words.
An interesting contrast appeared in another article in the same magazine. Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher from Thailand, wrote this way: "The sense bases of eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind are all things that can facilitate the arising of wisdom, if we know them as they are."
True as these words are, they donít speak to me as directly as "Pay attention!" Iíve read many volumes written by teachers of the Buddhist tradition, and for a long while I had to work hard to follow their teachings. Itís easier now, since Iíve absorbed some of the old-fashioned words, and perhaps Iíll need to continue to read them in order to move on in my practice. The truth, to me, is beyond the wordsóany words. Still, I need words in my language to point the way.
I know that the path I am on is in esoteric territory. Somehow I must find my way through it. The occasional signposts will be easier to read if they reflect my current experience. And in order for me to communicate my understanding to others (when that becomes appropriate), I need to use words that those others are familiar with, as well. Itís easy to lean on current jargon, but Iím apt to mystify the person Iím addressing if Iím not aware of the differences in our word-worlds.
"Pay attention!" wasnít clear to me when it came to me in that Quaker meeting, but it was unmistakable in tone. Something inside of me knew that it meant something to me, and would get my attention. That was enough, it seems. My real work lay ahead.
Thereís an important paradox in Buddhist mystical teaching. It takes effort to let go. I have to be motivated to keep my butt on the cushion, as they say, to keep meditating, to keep up "the practice." Without those hours of just sitting and observing, I will simply continue to react to things in my life. My filters will stay in place. I will live according to assumptions and habits that are, as Vincent Sheean once wrote, "weapons we never bought." So I have to work at it, even though the objectiveóthat is not really an objective, but simply a natural resultóis to let go of all those filters, and just be with whatever occurs. The thing is, that our filters and our illusions cause suffering. Pain does not cause suffering, our resistance to pain causes suffering. Our desires cause suffering when we cannot have everything we want, and if we do get something we want, thereís always something more, something next to want. Letting go eases suffering.
And paying attention to what comes to our minds is the first step to recognizing those unbought weapons. "It takes years," Sheean continued, "to learn to throw them away and go, defenseless and undefending, toward whatever the truth may be."
May 26, 2004