There’s an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichu, “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.”

For “attention” we could substitute the word “awareness.” Attention or awareness is the secret of life and the heart of practice. Like the student in the story, we find such a teaching disappointing; it seems dry and uninteresting. We want something exciting in our practice! Simple attention is boring: we ask, is that all there is to practice?

When students come in to see me, I hear complaint after complaint: about the schedule of the retreat, about the food, about the service, about me, on and on. But the issues that people bring to me are no more relevant or important than a “trivial” event such as stubbing a toe. How do we place our cushions? How do we brush our teeth? How do we sweep the floor, or slice a carrot? We think we’re here to deal with “more important” issues, such as our problems with our partner, our jobs, our health, and the like. We don’t want to bother with the “little” things, like how we hold our chopsticks, or where we place our spoon. Yet these acts are the stuff of our life, moment to moment. It’s not a question of importance, it’s a question of paying attention, being aware.

Why? Because every moment in life is absolute in itself. That’s all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future; there is nothing but this. So when we don’t pay attention to each little this, we miss the whole thing. And the contents of this can be anything. This can be straightening our sitting mats, chopping an onion, visiting someone we don’t want to visit. It doesn’t matter what the contents of the moment are; each moment is absolute. That’s all there is, and all there ever will be. If we could totally pay attention, we would never be upset. If we’re upset, it’s axiomatic that we’re not paying attention. If we miss not just one moment, but one moment after another, we’re in trouble.

Suppose I’m condemned to have my head chopped off in a guillotine. Now I’m being marched up the steps onto the platform. Can I maintain attention to the moment? Can I be aware of each step, step by step? Can I place my head in the guillotine carefully so that I serve the executioner well? If I am able to live and die in this way, no problem arises.

Our problems arise when we subordinate this moment to something else, our self-centered thoughts: not just this moment, but what I want. We bring to the moment our personal priorities, all day long. And so our troubles arise.

When attention to the present moment falters and we drift into some version of “I have to have it my way,” a gap is created in our awareness of reality as it is, right now. Into that gap pours all the mischief of our life. We create gap after gap after gap, all day long. The point of practice is to close those gaps, to reduce the amount of time that we spend being absent, caught in our self-centered dream.

We make a mistake, however, if we think that the solution is that I pay attention. Not “I sweep the floor,” “slice the onions,” “I drive the car.” Though such practice is okay in the preliminary stages, it preserves self-centered thought in naming oneself as an “I” to which experience is present. A better understanding is simple awareness: just experiencing, experiencing, experiencing. In mere awareness there is no gap, no space for self-centered thoughts to arise. When self-centered thoughts come up, then we’ve missed the boat; we’ve got a gap. That gap is the birthplace of the troubles and upsets that plague us.

Every time we have a complaint about our lives, we’re in a gap. In awareness practice, we notice our thoughts and the contraction in our body, taking it all in and returning to the present moment. That’s the hardest practice. We’d rather escape this scene entirely, or else stay immersed in our little upsets. After all, our upsets keep us the center of things, or so we think. The pull of our self-centered thoughts is like walking through molasses: our feet come out of the molasses with difficulty and then rapidly get stuck again. We can slowly liberate ourselves; but if we think it’s easy, we are kidding ourselves.

Whenever we’re upset, we’re in the gap; our self-centered emotions, what we want out of life, are dominant. Yet our emotions of the moment are no more important than replacing the chair at the table, or putting the cushion where it should be.

Most emotions do not arise out of the immediate moment (such as when we witness a child being hit by a car), but are generated by our self-centered demands that life be the way we want it to be. Though it’s not bad to have such emotions, we learn through practice that they have no importance in themselves. Straightening the pencils on our desk is just as important as feeling bereft or lonely, for example. If we can experience being lonely, and see our thoughts about being lonely, then we can move out of the gap. Practice is that movement, over and over again. If we remember something that happened six months ago and with the memory come upset feelings, our feelings should be looked at with interest, nothing more. Though that sounds cold, it’s necessary in order to be a genuinely warm and compassionate person. If we find ourselves thinking that our feelings are more important than what is happening at the moment, we need to notice that thought. Sweeping the walk is reality; our feelings are something we’ve made up, like a web we have spun in which we catch ourselves. It’s an amazing process that we put ourselves through; in a way, we are all crazy.

When I see my thoughts and note my bodily sensations, recognize my resistance to practicing with them, and then return to finishing the letter I’m writing, then I’ve moved out of the gap into awareness. If we are truly persistent, day after day, we gradually find our way out of the gooey mess of our personal lives. The key is attention, attention, attention.

Writing a check is just as important as the anguished thought that we won’t see a loved one. When we don’t work with the gap created by inattention, everyone pays the price.

Practice is necessary for me, too. Suppose I hope that my daughter will visit me at Christmas, and she calls to say she’s not coming. Practice helps me to continue to love her, rather than becoming upset that she’s not doing what I want. With practice, I can love her more fully. Without practice, I would simply be a lonely and cantankerous old lady. In a sense, love is simply attention, awareness. When I maintain awareness, I can teach well, which is a form of love; I can place fewer expectations on others, and serve them better; when I see my daughter again, I don’t have to bring old resentments into the meeting, and am able to see her with fresh eyes. So the priority is right here and now. In fact, there’s only one priority, and that’s attention to the present moment, whatever its content. Attention means attention.

Excerpted from Nothing Special: Living Zen to be published in October 1993. Reprinted with permission from HarperSanFrancisco, a division of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

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