With so much information at hand, why do we still fail to make progress? Tools once secret and sought after, techniques so valuable one might have paid vast sums for their obtainment, now freely percolate through the web for all to use. Skilled professors, therapists, and teachers willingly divulge content, sharing decades of experience and distilling their practice into precious gems so that others may benefit from their work. Truly this is a remarkable thing! Yet upon observation, it seems that only a few take advantage of this golden age. Where is the disconnect taking place in our connected world?
In 15th century Japan there lived Zen Monk called Ikkyu-san who was quite controversial if not infamous for his radical style of teaching and practicing. Upon his attainment it is said that he burned his certificate of transmission and left the temple, disgusted with the squabbling and political nature of monastic life at the time. After leaving the Monastery he roamed Japan for most of his life, teaching and practicing Zen. All the while writing some of what is now considered to be some most cherished Japanese poetry ever written for its colorful subject matter and wild contemplative attitudes. Known equally for his debaucheries as he was for his pure understanding, he is still beloved. Even deserving of his own children’s television show in which a cartoon version of little Ikkyu mischievously outsmarts the old monks and stirs up all sorts of delightful trouble. One brief anecdote illustrates the parallels between our world today and that of medieval Japan:
One day a man of the people said to Zen master Ikkyu: “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”
Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.”
“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?”
Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention”
“Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.” Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running:
“Attention. Attention. Attention”
The man’s reaction would in no way be out of place today. Simple answers do not satisfy. Practicing the same phrase or pattern every day is too boring. It is not enough to sit still and breathe. The neo-mania of our age sends us flitting from one modality to the next before we have even considered the fundamentals of the previous one. Our attempts at stillness are infiltrated by apps and content designed to captivate and control our attention. New flavors, sights, sounds and ideas daily. Of course this hardwired dissatisfaction with the status quo has evolved to become the dominant paradigm of our species. It has put us on the moon, permitted us radical advances in medicine, and allows us the opportunity to read these words while sitting on the bus or comfortably at home. A child in the third world, upon access to the Internet may discover a skill set that will carry them across borders and class divides in a manner unprecedented. Yet as technology improves, so does the separation of body and mind. Our cerebral experience now takes priority over the physical. Socialization was once a shared sensory experience of environment and activity, now it largely takes in the place on screens. In these new sedentary digital realms, smart companies have quickly realized that the new attention economy is the place to direct energy and resources.
Our culture is set up in such a way that we prize rationale and conceptual thought over pure attention simply to what is. When we begin a practice of any kind, whether it be learning the piano, undertaking gymnastics, or addressing that bad knee, the first step is organizing our attention. Attention is free. It is abundant. We all have it. We need it to tie our shoes or to perform a handstand. It connects us to the highest joys and the deepest pains. It is the wild dragon we can ride through hedonism or discipline. Anxiety or enlightenment. Where it goes matters a great deal. To engage in personal practice and learn effectively we must first cultivate attention that is void of ego and outcome, of good and bad. Information can play a role in guiding a practice, but it cannot make change in and of itself. Protocols and programs are certainly useful to construct an underlying framework, but the real work is done in the moment, without distraction. To cultivate attention that is void of judgment but filled with curiosity allows us the freedom to learn and create spontaneously, as a child does. This first step, becoming the Observer, is prerequisite to any practice we wish to engage.
So stop thinking and start paying attention!
“Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon” -Ikkyu