bare attention

“Green Bamboo” by Ren Adams

My previous post, Content with this moment, following the natural flow, quoted Chuang-tzu as saying, “Be content with the moment…” and mentioned discontentment/suffering as the central problem that the Buddha also addressed.  But this idea of being content with the moment does not imply that one should try to artificially force oneself to be happy at every moment, even if something sad or upsetting is happening.  Being “content,” in this context, does not necessarily mean being “happy,” but rather implies being aware, being open and receptive, taking what comes in the moment, including one’s own feelings—whatever they are—but not rejecting, judging, or clinging to what is happening in the moment.  The Tao Te Ching seems to describe this state-of-mind that involves awareness, openness, acceptance, but nonattachment to what is happening in the moment.

“Things arise and she lets them come;
things disappear and she lets them go…”

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 2, Stephen Mitchell translation

A related concept in Buddhism is “bare attention,” which was mentioned in a quote of Phil Jackson in my previous post following.  I’m really intrigued by this idea of bare attention.  It seems like a state-of-mind that is extremely valuable, though not easy to attain without lots of practice.  Bare attention can be cultivated through meditation, and can be extended beyond meditation to periods of one’s daily activities, including interactions with others, as Phil Jackson describes in the passage I quoted in following.  In his book Thoughts Without a Thinker, Mark Epstein does a wonderful job of describing bare attention in detail.  Because I can’t really do this justice by paraphrasing, I included multiple quoted excerpts from the book–below:

“Defined as ‘the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of perception,’ bare attention takes this unexamined mind and opens it up, not by trying to change anything but by observing the mind, emotions, and body the way they are.  It is the fundamental tenet of Buddhist psychology that this kind of attention is, in itself, healing:  that by the constant application of this attentional strategy, all of the Buddha’s insights can be realized for oneself…Common to all schools of thought, …the unifying theme of the Buddhist approach is this remarkable imperative:  ‘Pay precise attention, moment by moment, to exactly what you are experiencing, right now, separating out our reactions from the raw sensory events.’  This is what is meant by bare attention….

“As noted before, bare attention is impartial, nonjudgmental, and open.  It is also deeply interested, like a child with a new toy.  The key phrase from Buddhist literature is that it requires ‘not clinging and not condemning’…

“Neither intense emotion nor intense stimulation need disrupt [bare attention], because its mirrorlike clarity can reflect whatever enters its field…”

— from Thoughts Without a Thinker:  Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective, by Mark Epstein, Basic Books, 1995, excerpts from pp. 110-127

I’ve been trying, with variable levels of success, to use bare attention when listening to and talking with other people, especially people who are important to me.  It is not easy at all, and I feel that I’m just at the beginning of my efforts, but it seems to me that this attitude of listening with an open state of mind, noticing your own reactions but not getting too caught up in them, can allow you to really hear and connect with another person much better, as I alluded to in my previous posts listening, child and parent, student and teacher, listening and understanding in Tai Chi Chuan, and following.  This seems to me to be something worth practicing consistently, over a lifetime.

©2009-2011 Aspiring Taoist.  All Rights Reserved


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