We could say that the self emerges from attention, in the sense that what it gives attention to and how it gives attention become the self, or what we are – for now – calling the self.
If we are inattentive, then the self will be a sort of mess. Whatever enters is taken without question, without discrimination. Disorder prevails, attended by feelings of fear and guilt. We sense that things are not right and that we are responsible but we don’t know what to do to fix it.
This is how we live, most of us. We aren’t bad or stupid. In fact, in some ways, we are especially sensitive and willing, very much engaged with our natural intelligence and common sense. That is how we are aware that something is off. But we still don’t know what to do. And we still think we’re responsible for finding a solution.
The problem is always that we are not seeing Life properly. We are like explorers holding the map upside down, studying pocket watches instead of compasses. Or like dancers holding our hands over our ears and wondering why we can’t hear the music.
There is a simple fix in the nature of a correction, but we can’t see it. We are inside the error looking out, and from within the error, what would save us appears dangerous, while what keeps us lost and forsaken appears as salvation. This is why we are stuck in guilt and fear, and this is why it seems so hard to navigate out.
For me, seeing this began as an intellectual exercise. I studied the problem from many vantage points until it clarified and I could say it – or write it – the way I did in the preceding paragraphs. It is like redrawing the map based on the sentences of those who have gone a bit farther than you, who maybe left behind a sentence or a line that caught the light just so.
That is one way to begin, but it’s important to see it as a beginning. We are apt to assume that intellectual understanding equals application, the whole picture all at once, but that’s not true. We actually have to practice. There are a lot of nuances and subtleties in practice that we don’t encounter in books, and that can only be resolved through actual relationship with what is.
The question – however you choose to phrase it – is always: what are we in truth? If we are bodies, then it makes sense to be very protective of them. It makes sense to fear death. It makes sense to pursue pleasure while avoiding pain. If we are the stories we tell about those bodies, then it makes sense to cultivate experiences that render well in narrative.
But it seems on examination that our bodies are not ourselves, and that the stories we tell are neither being told nor telling us. They are more like fluttering veils masquerading as walls, as the body is simply a present mode of experience, where the experience has neither a beginning nor an end, and no particular investment in containers.
I say “seems” because – again – it is very easy to say all this. And it is okay to say it, but not if we are still pretending that the word is the thing. Not if we are using our wordiness, however it manifests, to project an undoing we have yet to see to undone. It’s like I can say “kiss” but it’s far more wild and intimate to actually give and receive kisses. I mentioned dance earlier. We don’t want to just study the waltz – we want to get out on the floor and waltz until our hearts break, until stars come crashing through the ceiling, cluttering the floor up to our knees.
About a year ago, I became intensely intimately aware of the way in which attention was both perennially present and responsive. I was in a relationship with attention, but I hadn’t really known it until then. Seeing it clearly meant becoming responsible for the relationship, for my own presence in it. I began to give attention to attention.
Attention is non-local and non-temporal. It is always right here right now. It is responsive but not subordinate. We don’t make it. The gentler and more sustained we become with it, the larger and more welcoming it becomes with us. Its effects are not predictable save that they are never harmful. It is impersonal.
I think if you notice your own experience of attention, and stay with it, you will see all this as well.
Attention becomes a practice because it undoes what is false which in turn reveals what is always and forever true. Truth is true while falsity is the always-shifting cover that obscures it. For me, this insight has not been in the nature of a singular prismatic explosion, Christ and the light rushing the ramparts all at once. Rather, it has been in the nature of cleaning and polishing a window: the light comes in slowly, almost imperceptibly. You think: why didn’t I do this before?
I kept trying to be a priest when all I needed was a janitor.
To be attentive is to be discerning. We inquire into what arises and decline to identify with it simply because it arises. Let be, let be. We sit quietly and look: nothing clings to us because we aren’t grasping. In this way, the self becomes something vital and alert and welcome. In a sense, it becomes attention itself, while in attention specificity and multiplicity become transparent, and Wholeness emerges to continue prying us open.
In my experience, this is not immediately perceived as a positive or healthy or even pleasant thing. It is discombobulating because we are discovering that the foundation upon which we have erected both self and world has about as much heft to it as a slip of cloud trailing away after a storm. Indeed, the world and the self begin to take on the tenuous characteristics of slips of cloud too.
And really, there is nothing for it but to simply come back to the seeing of it over and over. Give attention to attention giving attention. Attention is always there, it is always attentive. If we allow it to drift in the direction of guilt and fear, then that is what we will perceive ourselves to be. But if we direct it away – any other way – then we will perceive ourselves as that. When we get shaky, thinking that we can’t possibly let go of this whole elaborate get-up, we can always just rest in attention. It is never not welcoming us by virtue of its responsiveness which is it the simple condition of its presence.
I am saying in a way that what happens is that we start to breathe a bit and realize that there’s no rush and nothing to do anyway. The question of the self answers itself in such a quiet and gentle way that we forget it was even a question. Once we reach the presence of attention, the guilt and fear are over. We might not know they are over, and we might go back and forth indulging them for a while – even a long while – but so what? Home is home, even when our back is turned, even when we’re a thousand miles away.