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Attention Is The Highest Capacity Of The Brain

There’s a well-known Japanese Zen story about a unique master called Ichu, also known as Ikkyu.

A student came to Master Ichu and said, “Please write for me something of great wisdom.”

Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: “Attention.”

The student said, “Is that all?”

The master wrote, “Attention. Attention.”

The student became irritable. “That doesn’t seem profound or subtle to me.”

In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

In frustration, the student demanded, “What does this word ‘attention’ mean?”

Master Ichu replied, “Attention means attention.”

I understand Ichu to mean: “Stop analyzing, stop verbalizing, and simply attend to what is.”

Unfortunately however, attention doesn’t just mean attention. Without even considering cultural contexts, the word means different things to different people. Some English speakers use attention as a synonym for concentration, though attention and concentration are completely different things.

Others may be referring to the mindfulness fad when speaking of attention. Then there is the admonition we’ve all heard as schoolchildren: “Pay attention!”

The word is also used as a warning, for example, “ATTENTION: TORNADO WARNING!” Then there’s the military command to stand at attention.

So attention has many meanings in English, which attests to its ubiquity and utility, as well as the necessity of understanding Ichu’s meaning where the inner life is concerned.

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One of my intents with this column is to make complex issues as simple as possible, without being simplistic. Attention is the most important and difficult thing, but it’s also essentially simple.

Concentration, on the other hand, is complex, involving focusing one’s faculties and will on a task or goal.

Mindfulness is simply being aware of what is actually happening within and without at any given moment. And paying attention is listening without being distracted by extraneous associations around or within one.

Then what is attention, and why did Master Ichu insist on it as a one-word answer to his pupil’s question? For one thing, because attention is all-inclusive.

Of course we cannot encompass everything in awareness, at least not in detail, but attention is not a narrowing down of awareness, rather an opening up and intensification of consciousness.

Narrowing down awareness is the great mistake of many meditation systems. Even focusing on one’s breathing narrows down awareness in a misguided attempt to quiet thought by forcing the mind to focus on a single thing. It can produce a certain calm and stability, but it cannot yield spontaneous stillness and the state of insight.

The precondition for the brain gathering attention is passive, choiceless watchfulness. In sitting or standing still and simply listening to and watching everything that comes into one’s awareness, outside and inside, without judgment or choice, awareness quickens and deepens.

Listen with delight to the birdsongs, the whistle of a train in the distance, and the unseen little girl’s voice. And listen to your reactions without judgment to the angry shout or ugly music. Play with listening, experiment, and see what happens.

In the same choiceless way one intently watches the leaves flow by in a stream during autumn, one watches every thought and emotion as they arise within one. The observer/self cannot truly watch anything, because it inevitably and habitually separates, judges and chooses. Therefore watch the watcher until awareness quickens and there is no more watcher, just watching.

Speaking personally, I still find it difficult to observe in this way indoors. So I take my meditations in the park beside a stream whenever I can, and on the patio when I can’t.

The key is to allow awareness to grow quicker than the secondary reactions of judgment and interpretation of thought. As one is choicelessly listening and watching, the secondary reactions of evaluation and effort fall away, and thought/emotion becomes a single stream. The silly division between ‘me’ and ‘my thoughts’ ends.

The ‘I’ is actually an inextricable part of the entire field of thought. With choiceless watchfulness, the ‘me’ is absorbed into the entire field of awareness of the movement of thought. And when passive watchfulness is effortlessly sustained, attention gathers and intensifies unseen in the brain.

Then ‘I’ am not attending to what is happening outside and inside; the brain is attending to what is. The mind unexpectedly stops thinking, chattering, associating and remembering. The duality between inside and outside dissolves, and there is unity with nature, freedom from the reactions of conditioning, and a causeless joy of being.

Why is learning the art of effortlessly growing the brain’s capacity for attention essential? Because collective consciousness is becoming darker, engulfing the hearts and minds of more and more people. Not just in America’s dead culture, but in the globalized juggernaut of capitalism’s materialistic/individualistic/

consumeristic culture.

If one is fortunate enough not to live in a war zone or in severe poverty, making the space and taking the time to do nothing but listen and watch, especially in nature, and allow the brain to gather attention, is the most important thing one can do.

Passive watchfulness ignites an intense, non-directed fire of attention, which quiets the mind and burns away the hurts and accumulations of experience.

Then not only does the heart expand, but the brain itself is healed and restored. In effortlessly leaving the polluted river of the known, an immanent inviolability beyond words comes.

Attention is the key that opens the door to sublimity.

Martin LeFevre


lefevremartin77 at gmail

© Scoop Media

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