top of page
  • Writer's pictureallenbroadman

Attention Means Attention

A Spirit of Repair

When Zen master Yaoshan was sitting in meditation a monk asked, “What do you think about, sitting in meditation?" Yaoshan said, “I think not thinking.” The monk said, “How do you think not thinking?” Yaoshan said, “Non-thinking.” - koan from 13th century Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo

I’m writing this just after a meeting of the Nyack Zen Group, which comes together weekly to meditate together as a group. Generally, these meetings are pretty good models of sharing and peaceful coexistence, but during this last meeting, a conflict arose which left me feeling awful, and for which I’m sorry for my contribution. The conflict arose around the meaning of “attention.” It might seem improbable that something we all inherently understand directly could be a source of disagreement, and yet it was.

I was talking about the difference between meditation methods that use a simple object of concentration like the breath or a mantra, in contrast to methods that use visualizations of some kind, which involve imagination and high degrees of thinking. I called “attention” a non-cognitive process. I meant this as synonymous with a non-thinking process, but whereas “thinking” has a well-understood common meaning, “cognitive” has a precise psychological meaning. Mixing the terms this way was a total mistake on my part. “Attention” in neuroscience and cognitive psychology is a complex concept with various interpretations, but it is universally categorized under the cognitive functions, which also include memory, learning, decision-making, judging, reasoning, language use, and more.

This simple wrong belief on my part led to a strained exchange between me and the person who correctly pointed out that attention is classified as cognitive. At the meeting I was both resistant to and dismissive of the idea that attention could be considered cognitive, and not surprisingly, that wasn’t received well. I think it’s worth looking at some of how and why it all happened, especially from a Zen practice point of view.

Tell me to what you pay attention and I’ll tell you who you are. - Jose Ortega y Iggaset, Spanish philosopher and poet

I think the major reason for the conflict was the degree to which I was attached to my mistaken belief that attention was not categorized as a cognitive process. In holding tightly to such a belief, mistaken or otherwise, there is no space for being open to seeing how it simply might be otherwise. The attachment to the belief fundamentally makes other opposing beliefs hard to believe. And the stronger the attachment, the harder it is. At some point, our attachment to beliefs can be so strong that any even seemingly contradictory beliefs become impossible to accept. This is the realm in which hostility, violence, and even war can all arise – all things which we read about every day, playing out on a global stage.

abstract person doing pushups

Making the situation worse is that I’ve been studying neuroscience, psychology, and the philosophy of mind for years, and this mistaken belief about how attention is categorized slipped in amidst a lot of careful investigation on the subject. But all that study and effort made things more problematic because it increased my general confidence about the topic, leaving me even less likely to open up to the idea that I had a relevant fact completely wrong. The possibility of this kind of problem is a fundamental Buddhist teaching – that our learning and knowledge – even our accurate knowledge – can be an impediment instead of a help if we are entangled with it or identified with it. There is an insidious nature to this kind of problem, which is that my wrong belief in this case has been with me for years, accepted by me but unexamined because there haven’t been circumstances calling it into question. It’s been a wrong belief just sitting there, dormant, and the length of time it’s been around made it even more difficult to let go of. It's sobering to consider how many dormant, wrong beliefs we are all holding onto unconsciously, just there waiting to become problematic under certain conditions.

Most men, including those at ease with problems of the highest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. - Leo Tolstoy

The person who I had the interaction with at the meeting seemed pretty upset about it afterwards, rightfully so. I went home after the meeting and got online and it only took a couple of minutes to read up on concepts of attention in neuroscience (thank you Google) and I could quickly see my mistake. Although it’s good to see the mistake now, the impacts of handling any interaction poorly are out there in the world, and they’re not always easily fixed. This was the first time the person had attended the group, and I don’t know them at all. It very well may be the last time they attend, depending on just how off-putting the experience was for them, which would be a shame.

person talking to another person

The 2nd century Indian Buddhist teacher Nagarjuna, in considering the impacts of our actions on the world, suggested that our actions, once committed, take on a life of their own. He wrote: “Imagine a magician who creates a creature who creates other creatures. Acts I perform are creatures who create others.” Our words and actions, both good and bad, reverberate through space and time whether we wish them to or not.

It’s not only attachment to a mistaken belief that led to a poor handling of the situation. Ironically, it was also due to insufficient attention from me. If we want good, solid communications and interactions with someone, we’ve got to stay attentive not only to the words and information being exchanged, but to people’s affect and other feelings they’re expressing non-verbally. And we need to do that while we’re paying close attention to our own feelings at the same time. That may be a tough ask, but it's necessary. In this case, I wasn’t doing either one well enough, and surely missed important signals along the way – signals which had I caught them, would have led me to have spoken and acted differently, probably avoiding much of the trouble.

What to Do Afterwards?

Mistakes and poor actions are inevitable for everyone, there is no escaping them. So, what to do afterwards? I think keeping a spirit of repair is essential. Repair can mean many different things depending on the people involved and the circumstances, but the spirit of repair, if present, helps guide our next choices, our next actions. In the spirit of repair, we can reflect on our contributions, get our facts straight, acknowledge mistakes and misdeeds, express regret, and in general, try to learn from whatever messes (big or small) we have contributed to. All this is in the service of healing and of doing better in the future.

person talking to another person

For me personally, another thing to do is to keep meditating. Sincere Zen meditation helps quiet the mind, it helps reduce habitual and compulsive thinking, and it brings to light our attachments and aversions to things, people, and ideas. And it strengthens our attention – our capacity to concentrate and to directly experience the present moment, more freed from distractions and thoughts. All of those are ingredients for better navigating the challenging and complex circumstances that we will inevitably encounter in our lives.

I will leave the final words about attention to the 14th century Japanese Zen master Ikkyu, about whom this exchange was recorded long before neuroscience was a thing!

One day a person asked Zen master Ikkyu, "Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?" Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word: "Attention." "Is that all?" asked the person. "Will you not add something more?" Ikkyu then wrote twice running: "Attention. Attention." "Well," remarked the person rather irritably, "I really don't see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written." Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: "Attention. Attention. Attention." Half-angered, the person demanded, "What does that word 'attention' mean anyway?" Ikkyu answered gently, "Attention means attention." - 14th century Zen master Ikkyu


Recent Posts

See All

Right Now

1 Comment

Dec 22, 2023

I must say that I am impressed! It takes a depth of spiritual work to humbly admit one's wrongs and offer a repair after a conflict. As the other party in this conflict, allow me offer my own...

Did I intellectually decimate you in response to this error? Absolutely. And for that, I was wrong. I spoke disparagingly to someone who was only trying to offer a free service, a safe space, to the larger community.

"Mistakes and poor actions are inevitable for everyone"

Myself as well.

Thank you for your repair,

~ "The person who correctly pointed out that attention is classified as cognitive"

bottom of page