Paying attention

Published in New Ch’an Forum, 1995, No12. 9-15

This paper was originally written in response to a request for contributions to a book on Lay Zen.

The question of lay Zen may appear difficult but it has a blindingly simple answer. Pay attention.

Paying attention is part of every practice that I know of, whether watching the breath, repeating the Buddha’s name, or practicing bare awareness or mindfulness. My own practice is little more than just paying attention, greatly illuminated, especially in the early years, by John Crook’s magic instructions “Let it through. Let it be. Let it go.”.

If the answer is so simple why do we need a whole book about it? I would say because it is simple but extraordinarily difficult. Zen or Ch’an seem at first to make outrageous demands. I remember my reaction when I first met the idea of giving up desire – what? What on earth would be the point of living without desire? Or having no preferences! How could a sophisticated, well-educated Westerner living in the 1990s seriously contemplate having no preferences? And if you do take it seriously what do you get for your pains? Zen offers no safe heaven to go to if you practice hard and do it well, no saviour to comfort and forgive you if you get it wrong, and no promise of personal survival to make it all worthwhile – quite the opposite. It even claims that “you” are not the important, permanent, persisting creature you thought you were. As far as Zen is concerned you really don’t matter very much at all. Life is suffering and the only way out of that seems to be to give up the very things that made it just about bearable in the first place. Great!

I don’t see it that way now. It seems to me now that Ch’an offers a well structured and fantastically clever set of ways to cut right through the illusions that create all our pain and confusion. The empty promises are terrifying but real. The techniques really do work. There is no need of false Gods or false comforts. As the mind begins to reveal its own nature the falling away of desires and preferences and even self really is OK – in an ordinary everyday life.

Is there anything specially hard about our 90s Western life? I doubt it. I imagine the resistance to the ideas and the clinging to everything that seems to make life fun is just the same wherever and whenever you live. Perhaps we have specially sophisticated ways of avoiding looking into our own minds. Perhaps our psychology even makes it worse by giving us what appear to be more rational and scientific ideas of the mind. Perhaps by having so many possessions and such busy lives we make it harder but I doubt there is any really fundamental difference. Ch’an just is hard and the mind fights against it. But if we get on with it, it offers a way that is as appropriate for us as it has ever been for any human beings.

It seems to me that this transformation can come about by the simple expedient of paying attention. I would like to take the opportunity John has given us in putting this book together to explain what I mean.

Which Practice?

Ch’an offers some very simple practices. On a recent retreat John offered us a quick review of one approach. We began by paying attention to the breath, after an hour or two we went on to incorporate all feelings and bodily sensations, then we added in sounds around us. Later on we opened our eyes and added sight and finally we paid attention to all thoughts as well. In the end there is a sense of sitting in a silent space which is full of all these things. None grabs the attention any more than any other. All come and go in the great space without leaving any trace. There is fullness, richness and empty silence. All this comes about by paying attention equally to everything. Instead of one’s attention being grabbed by anything and everything and the mind instantly shutting down onto whatever shrieks loudest, the attention is freed. Practice at paying attention means no longer being at the mercy of the grabbers of attention.

But this is only one kind of practice. Why this one? Is it the best? Are all others somehow wrong? And why and how did I choose this one? Was it just luck that I got the right one first time? No. I don’t think so.

I used to worry that there were so many practices but I don’t worry now. Within reason I don’t think it matters much. Some years ago I was asked to review a book called “Waking Up”. It was all about a method based on the teachings of Gurdjieff. The practice involved constant self observation, separating the “owner of the cart” or observer, from the driver and the horse. I thought this stupid. After all there is no self and no observer, no driver and certainly no ultimate owner of the metaphorical carriage. I wanted to argue against this divisive approach. Yet I felt that I could not do so fairly without at least trying the practice. So I decided to give it six weeks, instead of my usual meditation, and note the results. It was long enough. What began as a method of creating great structures, separation and mental objects very soon, by persistent paying attention this way, gave way to the dissolution of these very structures, leading to the same place, paying attention. This took away some of my arrogance and confusion about which is the best method.

Attention to What?

To what does one pay attention? This is a similar question but we can look at it in a slightly different way.

Try it and find out. If you choose something to attend to there is always the implied question “why this?”. If you ignore this problem, choosing anything for any reason and persisting, the object of attention is sooner or later seen for what it is, ever changing, impermanent, a part of everything else. Alternatively you can refuse to choose and pay attention equally to everything. All the myriad mental contents come and go and are seen to be fleeting and interconnected, ever arising and falling away. The result seems to be the same whether you begin by paying attention to just one idea or to all.

One strategy I have found very useful in ordinary life is to tackle any problem by paying attention to everything equally as I would in meditation. It is hard, though not impossible, to do this continuously. An easier, and very useful, trick is to do it whenever the attention is dragged away by something. Other tricks I have used are always to do it on the toilet, or whenever I feel upset or every time I see a certain object. I don’t think it matters much what tricks you use as long as they remind you just to pay attention.

Here is an example. I was walking along the road one day when I saw a man walking in front of me, going where I was going. I didn’t like the look of him, even from the back, and began to elaborate nasty thoughts about him. I could have gone on doing so, or, more likely, have gone into self recriminations for being so horrid. Instead something reminded me to pay attention. There was lots to attend to – the trivial ever-changing thoughts, the emotions they stirred up, the buildings passing, feet walking, golden squishy autumn leaves on the wet pavement, glistening in the light of the street lamps. I paid attention to all of them without singling any out. The thoughts and judgments dissolved and everything was clear. It felt like dropping into the present; a peaceful ever-changing present that is, after all, always available in any moment of everyday life. The nasty thoughts did not survive the light of attention.

Who Pays Attention?

I have said that “I” paid attention but this might be misleading. When paying attention the self can come under the same scrutiny as everything else. This way it too is seen to be ever-changing and impermanent. With non-discrimination, or paying attention to everything, it too dissolves. This is odd. It feels odd; feeling but no-one feeling.

It may feel odd, at least at first, but we may be encouraged by the fact that it sounds much like some of the things the Buddha said about there being actions but no one who acts.

Who then is paying attention? I would say that the ordinary, constructed or imagined self, is not but the whole organism is. It is hard to drop the self this way. Yet the simple intention, to pay attention to all, will do it.

This raises some awful questions for living our lives. Without a solid self for the centre of our universe how do we get on with everyday life? How do we think, make decisions, take actions, plan the future or feel emotions? In my experience all these questions take care of themselves in just paying attention. I shall deal with each of these in turn because I think they are crucial to the changes that Zen brings about in everyday life.


If thoughts dissolve on paying attention how can we carry on all the thinking needed for everyday life? Surely I need all this frantic thought don’t I? How can I possibly get the children off to school, get myself to work, give that lecture, write that paper, go to that meeting, do that television programme, remember those letters, collect the children again, cook their supper, tidy the house, remember the note to the milkman, get to bed – all without thinking?

I am sure some thinking is needed to plan and execute such complexities. However, the more I have paid attention to my thoughts the more of them appear to be completely pointless and unnecessary – it is no great loss when they are gone. In fact the necessary ones are few and far between and do survive attention. A thought such as “we need some more washing up liquid. I’ll write it on the list” or “I promised to ring so-and-so. I’ll do it after six o’clock” can pass through in a fraction of a second and lead to actions, leaving barely a ripple. It is just another passing impermanent feature coming into being and disappearing again. Remarkably little time is needed for such thoughts. Instead of a constant overload of rambling thoughts, there can be vast open spaces with the occasional thought passing on its way in the light of attention.

Paying attention in this way does not make useful thought impossible. Indeed it seems to enhance it by clearing the mind of all the masses of utterly useless thoughts. The trouble is that some courage is required to let go of all the familiar garbage. However, with paying attention it just gets easier as time goes by. Patterns of thought that once seemed indispensable to one’s existence can soon be let go of with relief. Something similar is so of decision making.

Making Decisions.

The Buddha’s ideas on self have some terrifying implications for decision making. I look at it this way. If there is no solid, permanent, or persistent self then “I” cannot really be making the decisions. This sounds ridiculous. All my life I have struggled to take the right decision, to make the right choice. I have agonised more about this than anything else in life. What do I want of my career? Should I apply for that job? Shall I get married? Do I want children? Was this all illusion?

The implication of everything I have said so far seems to be that I shouldn’t fool myself into thinking I decide anything. Really? Is this really what Ch’an means?

Yes, really. I have gone about this in two ways, by intellectualising about it and persuading myself that this has to be so, and by paying attention. When paying attention I see decisions have to be made but “I” no longer agonise over them. In the present moment all those agonies of indecision are just more thoughts amongst all the others. Paying attention equally to everything there is no self making a choice. If decisions are to be made “I” am not making them, the whole organism is, indeed the whole universe really is, of which this body is just a part.

Suppose I have to decide whether to go to a meeting or not. The simple fact is that either I will or won’t go. Paying attention is hard work. It will include considering the factors involved, the cost, the need to get a baby-sitter, the comfort of sitting at home instead and so on. The necessary thinking goes on but it need not take up much mental space. Sooner or later the decision is made. Presumably it depends on a whole host of factors both internal to me and external, from my past experience and the present situation, both conscious and unconscious. It is really ludicrous to say that “I” make it independently. So, by paying attention, it gets made one way or the other. At the meeting, or at home, paying attention goes on, to the continuing, peaceful, ever-changing, present moment. It goes on afterwards too. Regret doesn’t seem to get a look in. When the present is fully attended to all those might-have-beens lose their power and are seen for the chimera they are. Also, without the worry of possibly regretting any outcome, making decisions is less painful.

Let me give a simpler example – the first in which I noticed what was happening. I used to have two possible routes home, the main road and the prettier but slower lanes. As I drove up to the traffic lights I was often torn by indecisiveness. How could I rationally decide? Which would I enjoy most? Which would be best? Actually it really didn’t matter much but this only made it worse. As my practice went on I suddenly realised one day that I didn’t have to decide. If I just kept paying attention I would drive one way or the other. I certainly never went straight on into the bollards or bang into another car. And whichever way I went was fine. It wasn’t, after all, such an important decision. As time went on I found that more and more decisions were like this. It brought a great sense of freedom to let so many decisions alone.

It sounds paradoxical, making decisions and yet not making them myself. Yet in my experience giving up making decisions leads to becoming more decisive. It is the dithering and fear that is gone. Decisions have to be made because nothing stands still. They are better made in the light of attention and without the illusion of a self who is making them.

Taking Action.

People often complain that the Zen way appears to be passive or inactive. It is not. Paying attention to the present is the same when the present is sitting at the wall, hanging out the washing or running to catch a train. Attention does not stop action. It is only the actor who dies. This seems frightening in prospect but in actuality it is fine. In the light of attention much of the agonising and preplanning of actions dissolves away. Yet it even seems as though the actions themselves are more direct and appropriate. Somehow, from somewhere, more energy for life and activity seems to appear. The person who pays attention just seems to be more alive and more, not less, able to act.

Planning the Future.

How can you plan the future while only paying attention to the present moment? This used to bother me greatly. Would I have to give up having career plans, thinking about my next book, even planning things to do with my children? I once met Baba Ram Dass and asked him “How can I be in the present moment when I’m trying to work out whether to accept that job or not?” “Where else could you possibly be?” he infuriatingly replied. Years later his answer seems quite appropriate. The few thoughts needed to weigh up that choice are present and then gone, part of the ever-changing present. While paying attention “I” am not swept up in a tide of useless speculation, wishing, regretting, or pretending. With practice it seems to me that planning the future takes remarkably little time and effort. It hardly disturbs a clear and attentive mind.

Minding and Feeling

In talking about paying attention and decision making I have almost implied that it doesn’t matter what the outcome is. In paying attention to the present moment, any present moment is OK. So does one entirely have to give up having preferences and just accept what is, completely passively? Does one stop having positive and negative emotions or minding about anything? For this seems incompatible with our everyday life. I think the answer is that it isn’t like that.

I woke up yesterday morning feeling awful – lethargic and down. I might have ignored this and struggled on, convincing myself that I was really happy – after all, in our culture it is almost required that good people are happy all the time. Paying attention made the pain, slight though it was, at once both obvious and unimportant. It was very short lived. Paying attention has an odd effect on emotions. Nearly ten years ago a Tibetan Buddhist, Chogyam, told me about “staring into the face of arising emotions”. I first tried this a few days later when a neighbour pulled up almost all my runner bean plants and I was angry. Staring into it the anger was just that – a great fire that raged up with an almost visible face and sank quickly away again. I told my neighbour how I felt and he apologised. There was nothing more to be done. By paying attention the emotions had not been ignored, indeed it was more obvious and immediate than ever, but it was also gone without trace. The real difference was the loss of all that extra trouble – the thoughts about the emotions, rejecting them or feeling guilty about them, encouraging them, wallowing in them or running from them. None of that. It was just anger, brief, effective and gone.

There is a tricky paradox here that has caused me some trouble but ultimately becomes clear. This is, that it is easy to abuse the practice by using it to let go of emotions that actually are needed. For a long time I stayed in a relationship that had gone badly wrong. I tried to accept the emotions and use meditation to cope with them. I tried to “not mind” whatever happened. The result was only that I got more and more unhappy. The answer is not to try to do anything, certainly not blindly to accept or to ignore emotions. Paying attention may appear superficially to have the same effect – for you do not mind emotions so much when they are clearly experienced in a great open space. Nevertheless there are positive emotions and negative ones and there is nothing wrong with that. It is human nature. The difference is this. Not paying attention, being distracted by every passing thought, there is constant turmoil, turning things over, bewildered by thoughts and agonies of indecision. Am I a bad person for feeling this way? Should I do this or that? Is it my fault? Could I have done better? Paying attention there is just the pain, or the delight, or the anguish or the joy. Appropriate action follows without further effort.

I have a long way to go with this one. It seems to me to be the hardest of them all at the moment. But still, paying attention seems to be the way to live fully the emotional ups and downs of life without getting swept away or imprisoned by them.

Having and Not Wanting

It is many years since I first heard of the outrageous idea of being without desire. It seemed awful – truly lifeless and pointless. How could anyone be human and alive and fun and happy if they had no desires? Also how could they own things? Wouldn’t it be impossible to own a dishwasher and a thousand books, a new CD player and a fax machine, a nice garden and an electric lawnmower without desiring them?

I can understand the monastic route – giving up all ownership as a way of dealing with desire but it is not the way for we Western Zen practitioners. We do have dishwashers and fax machines, gardens and cordless hedge trimmers.

I recently began to learn a new trick as far as desires are concerned. I fell in love. It was wonderful and exciting and full of delight and happiness and pleasure. But my new lover lived a long way away and I was often without him. I longed for him. I wanted him.

I paid attention to this and what did I find? Of course I found that all these desires were just more mental contents, just other thoughts and feelings to add to the many in that great space. There were aches in the region of the heart, twitches in my limbs, an emptiness and yearning between my legs, an insatiable desire to write letters to him. But they were all just more of the same – all part of the feelings, sounds, sights, and thoughts to be attended to equally. This completely transformed the desires. They did not go away. I did not lose desire for my lover but neither did I need gratification right now. Instead of feeling that unless I saw him now I had to be unhappy, I just found myself sitting with desire. It was fine. Even this whopping great longing was just another ever changing moment.

The same is so for all desires. I want another helping of chocolate pudding. In fact there either will or won’t be enough left for me. The desire will or won’t be gratified. When it happens one way or the other I will go on paying attention either to the full tummy, yucky with chocolate or to the slightly emptier one with only one helping. Either way will be fine. The funny thing about paying attention is how everything really seems to be fine whether the desires are fulfilled or not.

Gradually this approach to desires transforms them. They don’t go away but they stop driving you. It is as though, simply by paying attention, they lose their force. And you don’t feel less alive but more so.

Altruism and Compassion.

Are we supposed to be altruistic and “good”? I don’t even know what it means to be altruistic. When selves are empty and ephemeral how can one self act in the interests of another? Yet what good is all this practice if we don’t become better people? This may be really radical but I think we have to drop the idea of ever becoming better, or more altruistic or less selfish. All such desire is self-centred.

Again I turn to paying attention. If I walk through the college car park preoccupied with frets and worries of my own I probably won’t see one of my students, leaning on her car, looking tearful. On the other hand, if I am there, paying attention, the mind is clear and spacious. There are only cars and dead leaves, grey sky and a chill wind. I see a face. Without concerns of my own I feel the pain in that face. Without even thinking “what shall I do?” I am asking “You OK?”. No. She is sobbing on my shoulder. If I don’t have time to stay I shall have to leave. If I do I can stay and listen. No need for agonising or judging the actions. They did themselves.

Is this compassion? I don’t think it is altruism. It seems to me that in dropping self concern through paying attention, compassion, or feeling with others, seems to arise spontaneously – as though it is the natural way to be when it isn’t obscured by all that junk.

Being Different and Being the Same.

I have talked a lot about transformation and change. Paying attention changes you. You are no longer the same. There are paradoxes lying here too. It is easy to set out and think “I want to be different. I want to be a better, more compassionate person. I want to be a good Buddhist.” But this won’t work. It aims to make “me” a better person. Yet if I am not a persisting thing at all this is clearly ridiculous. It just boosts the craving self and increases rather than decreases desire.

Paying attention circumvents all this. It is done right now. It is not planned for the future or referred to anywhere else. It is paying attention right now to whatever right now is. That is all. Any transformation that occurs takes care of itself. This is why it is so terrifying for there truly is nothing to hang onto. There is only this present and it is already gone. However, paradoxically, it is also the way to losing fear. With practice at paying attention comes the confidence that there is always a now to attend to. All pasts and futures are mental constructions. If I think about them they become thoughts in attention. If I don’t they do not exist. When all present moments are bearable, when there are no obstructions to thought because I have learned to pay attention to everything, then there really need be no fear. Any “now” that the world throws at me will be fine.

This confidence means you can be more open to others and less concerned for self. There is no need to want to be a better person or to try terribly hard to do good things for others. Indeed this would only be feeding the opposites of good and bad and, as we are reminded by that little scrap of paper on the wall at the Maenllwyd, “When the opposites arise, the Buddha mind is lost”. Paying attention means being right there if someone needs you. I suspect this is a surer way to compassionate action than any amount of wanting to do good.

And here I stop for I become less sure. There appear to be myriad complexities here which can easily confuse me if I try to think them through. I have based what I have said on my own limited practice and I really don’t know what there is to be learned next. I can only say that it seems to me that paying attention, as we are taught in Ch’an, is worth all the hard work and worth all the terror it inspires. Paying attention is the hardest thing I know of, yet it is not even me who does it. For when there is really clear attention there is no self there. Yet there is no incompatibility between this teaching and living our complex Western lives. Ch’an is an inspiration for living and I am deeply grateful for having come across it. For now I will just carry on paying attention for I suspect there is nothing else to be done.