The Meaning of Attention
A talk given by Phiroz Mehta at Dilkusha, Forest Hill, London on 9th February 1974
You all know, theoretically at least, that we meet here because our concern is religion, the living of the Holy Life, in its practical aspect, the bringing to fruition of the religiousness which is our supreme characteristic as human beings, distinguishing us from all the rest of the animal world. This perhaps we believe sincerely enough. Is that belief a fact? Do we really understand what it means to be concerned with living the religious life, with bringing to fruition this extraordinary characteristic of religiousness, which shows us up in our unique aspect, (there are so many other aspects which we share with the animals, we all know that), this religiousness within us, this capacity for the awareness of Transcendence, this possibility for realizing harmonious ego hood here and now, as many have realized, (many people who do not claim to be religious realize in the world), and then transcending that egohood, becoming the egoless being whilst living as a separate ego, and being completely unified with totality, with the Transcendent Real in consciousness?
Is that a fact with us? Do we understand the enormity of it? This is where all of us, however sincere we may be, fall short in someway or another, perhaps in many ways. Inevitably there is a confusion in the mind because of, first and foremost, our animal descent. The body comes from an animal ancestor, and therefore we inherit the instincts and drives and some of the outstanding characteristics of the animal, like aggression, fear and so forth. Partly because of that, and partly because of the fact that the mind in us, which is aware of that which is quite beyond conflict and confusion and the ill state, lives by a law which is contrary, apparently contrary, to the law of the animal. The law of the animal is that it draws unto itself from the world in order that it may survive, and that it may live for the purpose also of the propagation of its own species. That is the law of the animal, but Man is a social animal, not being confined to gregariousness as the animals are, and he has an intelligent understanding of the worth and value of individuality, living in co-operation, voluntary co-operation and harmony, with other members of society who are also individual and unique. So there is that great difference, it is not a mere gregariousness. The law of this sort of living, and of so growing in one’s mind and heart through purification, through freedom from all that clutters up the mind, is that one realizes Transcendence itself. That is corporeality, if we may so call it, what the theistic mystics have called the unio mystica, what in the Upaniṣads (and Hinduism generally) is presented as realizing the Ātma, or, which is an exact equivalent of it, becoming Brahman,what is presented in other terms as entering the Kingdom of Heaven or realizing Nirvana.
Now all that is for us. We are the vehicles, the instruments, through which that phenomenon comes into being. If we look at it that way, we can look at it in a manner which is a little more free of the shackles of self-orientedness, of self-centredness. Never do I enter Nirvana,there is no such thing, absolutely none. This is one of the wonderful things you will find, for instance, in one of the Discourses of the Buddha,where he is talking about Sāriputta (his great disciple, “the son of his mouth”,as he called him). He is talking of Sāriputta realizing the deep states of consciousness, right up to the depth of Nirvana, and he says, “But whilst he is entering these states and emerging out of them, Sāriputta is never conscious in terms of I am entering, or I am emerging.” A most significant statement.
God is the All, the Absolute All. Brahman is the Absolute All. The Reality, the Totality, is the Absolute All, and the Absolute All is the One and Only Reality, the One and Only Whole, the One and Only because of which we use the word Universe. And it is this Universe that throws up innumerable phenomena, absolutely countless, and one of these phenomena is the phenomenon of the human being realizing that state of being and awareness which is named Transcendence, or Brahman, or Nirvana, or whatever you like. This realization process means that it comes into being because, although living in the animal body as such, we have completely freed ourselves from all the shackles of animal nature. This is not to suggest for a moment that there is anything wrong with the animal or animal nature. The good animals of the world (and there are innumerable millions)compare extremely well with the innumerable millions of the human race, who are still very subhuman, and not even particularly interested in growing into true humans, you must bear that in mind. So that when I talk, or when we talk,of the shackles of our animal nature, we are regarding the situation only from this point of view, that the actual organism, the living instrument, the existential me, which is here, has to manifest a phenomenon which is quite beyond the phenomenon of the good animal; the pure human, the Son of Man, the Manasyaputra. This is what we have to do, and this naturally therefore necessitates a conflict in the beginning. When there is understanding, when real vision dawns, there is no longer any conflict. This animal body remains as the permanent challenge to the mind to keep awake and to be totally attentive to that which is emerging in terms of Mind and Consciousness out of the animal body. To keep totally attentive to it, that is the challenge that the physical body continuously presents us with, right to the day of our death, the moment of our death. And if this challenge were not there we would not summon up that energy which is required. (Let me put it in a somewhat better form. Instead of saying “summoning up energy”, let us say that we would not let that transcendent energy find free and easy expression through the animal body which ordinarily obstructs that energy. This is the point). So now we have to keep awake, to be mindful, to be attentive in the perfect way. We believe that we are capable of paying attention. We delude ourselves that we can pay attention. Our faculty of attentiveness undergoes considerable restriction and distortion when we, as we ordinarily affirm, are attending.
Now let us realize that we, as we are, are conditioned from birth onwards. It is impossible to avoid it, and in fact one’s aim should not be to totally avoid being conditioned. If you try to grow a human being who is totally unconditioned, you will have a senseless mass there. This is very important. We often ask, “Oh! Why were we made imperfect?”, and so forth. God in Heaven! If we weren’t made imperfect, there’d be nothing for us to do! We would just be gobbled up by the next stronger animal! Now let us think carefully. We are conditioned from birth onwards by our parents, by the environment, our teachers, by the prevailing circumstances as they come, as they go, and so on. We are also conditioned by the way in which our own life-energy from within naturally reacts with the external environment. I say “naturally” in this sense:everyone of us has a blueprint laid down from the moment of conception, the brain, the nervous system, the ductless glands particularly. What they will be is our blueprint, so to say, and they are a very powerful determining factor, perhaps the most powerful determining factor in our lives,though within. I know a great many scientists will disagree and say, “Oh,no, it is the environment which is all important.” I maintain that we ourselves, the blueprint inside us, is of fundamental importance!
So this is our natural interaction with the external situation. The result is that we collect a heap of beliefs, conceptions, ideas and so on, as we grow, as we grow physically. Most of these conceptions and ideas are handed over to us because of our social-cultural heritage. They are not our original conceptions or ideas. “Mum and Dad told me so,” and implanted these beliefs in me. Then all that I studied, all that was presented to me via religion, via history or geography, or literature, or science, or mathematics, or whatever it is, all these ideas, these pictures are stuffed into me. When I use my senses, sight, hearing, touch, etc. , all these pictures are at play interpreting what is coming to me through the senses. That is why no two people looking at an elephant will see that elephant and describe it identically, it is always different. What we are seeing, or what we are hearing, or what we imagine we are understanding is our particular mental construct of that which is coming to us.
I am speaking certain words in the English language at the moment. You are all hearing the words. You know the dictionary meanings of the words,but your knowing the meanings and your interpretation of the sentences and thought as a whole, in every single case is different from everyone else’s. This is the meaning of the conditioning. We say that we are attending, we are paying attention to what the speaker is saying, but what sort of an attention is this? It is a conditioned attention, and it invariably knocks out of shape, slightly at least, that which is coming to you, presented to you. Take for example the act of looking at a flower. How do you look at the flower? Do you know the flower in itself as you look at it? Not at all. What you know is the description that your mind is giving, that your brain is giving to the experience through your sense of sight of that flower. And the description that is being given is conditioned all the time by all your concepts, your ideas, your beliefs, your desires, your state of health, everything. So you see we are not really paying attention to it. These are the obstructions to paying attention in the full sense, the true, deep sense.
Then there is the other aspect, we all have our particular tastes and like sand our aesthetic sense, and so forth. We look at something which makes us say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting,” or we read a book and say, “Oh, isn’t this marvellous thought.” What has happened? What is happening? That object which you are seeing or the thought which you are looking into has fascinated you, it has absorbed your attention. It has taken over your mind like an amoeba putting out a pseudopod and grasping the food which it is going to take into itself. We are “gobbled up”, so to say, by the thought or by the object which we see. The result is that as long as that fascination lasts we can pay attention, as we miscall it. (This is not really paying attention, but let us use the phrase for the moment). We are paying attention in the wrong way, caught up by the fascination of the thing. This is not paying attention. You might say, “But surely everybody in the world is in the same boat?” Yes, everybody in the world, practically everybody in the world, is in the same boat, excepting the one, two or three liberated ones, the utterly freed ones. In this state, what I see or hear or touch does not enable me to know the thing seen, heard or touched in itself,it is only the outward appearance, the impression on the brain, the thing in itself remains a mystery. If the thing in itself could be totally known by us, that would be the end, it would be the totality of knowledge with regard to that particular thing. Can any of us claim totality of knowledge? Is it not a fact, a real fact, of our existence through the millennia, through the ages, that we are constantly discovering new things about the same object, or the same set of ideas which are put in words? The finest example of that is the great scriptural writing. Another marvellous example is great art. Your great artist, let us say a concert artist, gives you a magnificent performance when he is twenty,wonderful interpretation and so on, and when he is sixty the interpretation is even more wonderful, he has conveyed an even profounder depth to you. How? Why? What has happened? I don’t know.
There is no end to knowledge which you can acquire. You do not know the thing in itself. And another thing of which we are ignorant is that we do not know, that we can never know the thing in itself, in our sense of the word “knowing” and “to know”, because our knowing inevitably entailed the separation of the person, the subject and the object which he is trying to know. There’s the everlasting separation. In this state of separation, this gap between them, this space which divides them, attention can never be total and complete in the pure and the profound sense. In the pure and the profound sense, complete, total attention means being that of which you are conscious. That is to say, you do not physically become the flower that you are looking at or the tree you are looking at. You do not yourself become the thought of the philosopher which you are reading in a book, but in consciousness, in awareness, there is no gap whatsoever. Self-consciousness in other words is completely out. But have you ever tried to examine what happens in the process of looking, or hearing, or touching, or studying, or reading, or meditating or praying? There is always the self-consciousness there, and associated with that self-consciousness is the whole heap of desires, ambitions, the sense of frustration or of achievement, as the case may be, because that word the “self”,the separate “self”, involves the totality of all that is ill, all that obstructs life in its wholeness from manifesting the fullness which it wants to manifest through the creature called the individual man. It is our responsibility to get free of this obstruction, to push it out.
Now I am putting it in terms that are obviously wrong terms, it cannot be “pushed out” because that which obstructs is just me, myself, so I cannot push me,myself, out. Go out into the sunlight and see if you can get rid of your shadow — you can’t. You can’t transmute the situation. How do you get rid of the shadow? By ceasing to be an opaque substance. If you, yourself, if the opaque substance that is this, the person, I,me, myself, is completely transmuted, the light is not out there, but this is the light. On what, where, does the sun cast its own shadow? It can’t, it doesn’t, and In that state, and this is an extremely good analogy,you are totally unaware that you are the light, and that there is no shadow cast by you. You are pure light, emanating light all the time, nothing obstructing life from manifesting the perfection that it wants to manifest through you, the person. And the sun of course is just blankly ignorant of its own power and wonder and beauty, and so on. And in what manner is it non-obstructive? What is one of the distinguishing characteristics of that manner? It is continuously “dying”, as we say. Immense hydrogen explosions take place on the sun all the time. Two hundred and fifty million tons of its substance just explode away and radiate light and heat throughout the solar system every minute. Of course none of us is two hundred and fifty tons to start with! True enough, which is a good thing!
But in our way we do the same thing if we are awakened and if we really understand. In this state there is total attention, and there is no knowledge in our ordinary sense of the world “knowledge”, because our knowledge is entirely in terms of finitude, of limitation, of measurement, of that which can be controlled, which can be restricted, which is not absolutely creative. This state of consciousness which can manifest through the individual, this state of the mind which is entirely empty, transparent,itself the source of light, itself the focus point into which transcendent life enters and moves out, quite freely, without obstruction, this state is the meaning of the wholly attentive condition.
How many of you have looked into the Upaniṣads for instance? You all know the words: Braham is sat-cit-ānanda. We gabble it off beautifully, just as we gabble off: “Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy Kingdom come,” and what not.”Brahman is sat-cit-ānanda.”We think ourselves wonderfully learned when we gabble those words. We haven’t the faintest conception of their meaning. We have amarvellous heap of misconceptions about it. Take the middle part, cit. Cit is attentiveness, it also means consciousness and it is used in connection with Brahman, and Brahman is supposed to mean the Absolute All, the Totality, the One and Only, without differentiation, without contradiction, the Absolutely All. Now what can be the meaning of the Absolutely All being attentive? Attentive to what? If there is only One, what are you attending to? There’s nothing to attend to. For us the word attention means the existence of separation, and where there is separation there must necessarily be limitation and finitude,and therefore death, as we ordinarily experience and apprehend it. Not death in its transcendent sense, which is Other-Life, which is the transformation of the Totality, which is Life/Other-Life, Life/Other-Life, not Life/Death, Life/Death. In Life/Other-Life, Life/Other-Life there is no contradiction, there is no conflict.
So now you see, if cit means consciousness, means attentiveness in the supreme sense, it is that cit which is coming into manifestation through you, through me, if we are really concerned with religion, the religious life, holy living, etc. , and are not concerned with ourselves, with our escape from pain, difficulty, problems, frustrations and all the rest of it. When this intense awareness permeates my whole being, then I am naturally religious. When I am truly and naturally concerned with religion, then only can I consider in the true and full sense religious teaching, or the religious presentation of things. You know (I have said it time and again) that the spiritual life begins with saint ship, and also that the words of Scripture come to life for me only when I have gone beyond the need of the words of Scripture. Because it is cit, pure consciousness within me, myself, this pure attentiveness within me, myself, which enlightens the word of Scripture. Otherwise I am only seeing and understanding the word sin terms of my limitations, of my conditioning.
It is necessary to try and understand these things in their profundity, in their wholeness, because then we will be free of misdirecting our energies and meeting only with dejection, frustration, disappointment, disaster. How often have we felt, you and I, “I’ve tried year after year, it’s the same old thing, I think I’m getting somewhere and then, lo and behold, this happens, and the whole structure comes crashing down like a house of cards.” Why? Because, when we thought we were building on sound foundations, we were actually playing with a pack of cards, our concepts, our ideas and above al lour desires and our longings for the self. Without intellectually forcing ourselves to do so — the grand gesture — what are we really prepared to let go freely, naturally, easily, for the sake of truth, love, beauty, goodness? We will go to meetings, we will devour all the books (as I have done through the years, with all these books that you see here), we will study and do this and that. We will practise meditation, we will give lectures, we will give out a little bit of money in charity, we’ll do this, that and the other, and all the rest of it. Then there’s always a but, thus far and no further. “I really can’t, you know, I’ve got a wife, I’ve got five children. You see, really I can’t do that, it just isn’t sensible.” Meaning that this foolish fellow has come to the end of his tether. And if I look at that, what do I learn? That all my searching for God, for Truth, for the Ultimate Real, all my service of God, giving myself and so forth, was overshadowed by this devil at the back of me who is waiting to hold out his hand and receive the filthy lucre which is his due — happiness,security, everlasting golden harps twanging and all that stuff and nonsense. You know, the selfness in us is a wonderful Mephistopheles and also a wonderful comic fellow — rather a pathetic comic!
We are all caught in this trap. If you like to put it another way, we are all tarred with the same brush. So you see that our task is to know that I am this sort of fellow. So when I try to pay attention to what is happening, I must be very, very sensitive and very much awake to all the reactions that take place immediately in my own mind. The Buddha said, “Sammā-sati”, (Perfect Mindfulness). Jesus said, “Watch,watch.” (Not the traffic in Oxford Street or all the people lounging round the statue of Eros, not that. Well, you can watch that also and watch what happens in your own brain when you see it. Is there anger? Is there violence? Is there disgust?). Watch it all, but particularly look within. Look within at the reactions that spring up, really understand them, this is what I am like, this is the phenomenon that is taking place through me. But this is not the phenomenon which manifests that perfect harmony of the mind which has transcended all ill, the mind which is the very embodiment of perfect love and wisdom and beauty and truth, and all the rest of it. So when you become really aware of it in the right way, then the transformation of the mind does take place. You render yourself clean, you become emptied of the dirt. Time and again I have fallen into the trap and said over and over again at these meetings, “Then you will find marvellous peace”, and this, that and the other. But you see, that is the carrot to say that then you will find peace. Who is going to strive for heaven, for Nirvana? If the meaning of heaven and Nirvana is everything that is most distasteful, painful,horrible to you and will just crush you out of existence, are you going to work for Nirvana, if that’s what working for Nirvana means? But if you can be free of any such anxiety or conceptions or ideas, if you can become unconscious of all that side of the process, you will become awake and totally attentive to Reality, to Truth, whatever that Reality and Truth may be, because then you no longer predetermine that the Reality and Truth shall be such and such. Look into your own minds. Every time you predetermine any such thing, you predetermine it in the shape that is agreeable to you, pleasant to you. Am I a wise fellow if I demand that the great Creative Power that brings everything into being brings it, or should bring it, according to a pattern that is agreeable to me? Even a little experience in the world shows that the pattern that is agreeable to me is disagreeable for the other fellow. Steelworkers are out of a job because miners are on strike. One lot wants to bring about a certain pattern of affairs, and another lot of people suffer in consequence of this. You know the good old joke, this one said this, this one said that, saying, “God,do this, God, do the other.” And finally, having heard the millions of contrary cries, “Good God!” said God, “What? I’ve got my work cut out for me!” It’s very true, isn’t it?
Let our concern with religion, with religiousness, come to flower. It is Life which brings everything to fruition, not you, not I. The you, the I, is composed, each of these, of beliefs, ideas, conceptions, all that is of the nature of limitation, of mortality, of death, of the ill state. It is Life which does it. If you want any evidence for that, look at the way people do all the wrong things and still survive and live up to eighty and ninety. Life is greater than all their evil doing. Isn’t it extraordinary? Isn’t it wonderful, isn’t this the graciousness, the infinite generosity of Life, of God, of Transcendence, use what word you like?
So our intelligence is shown if we let Life do this, and we let Life do this by being awake to all that we put out to obstruct it. Because of this we are very conscious, because this is the little thing that is the me. Life itself is the infinite thing — I cannot do anything, it deals unto me, I cannot do anything to it. So let us think of these things,think in the right way, that is to say, not in a particular form, but let the mind be quiet, let it dwell at ease in its own immeasurable nature and realm,and let it function through this living organism in peace and in quiet. And if you can practise that way, you will realize, you will make real in your own life and being, that wonderful saying in the Tejobinḍu Upaniṣad where Śiva, the third person of the Trinity (who in fact does correspond to what we call the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost in Christian terminology) says, “I am the I which has given up I.” Try and go into the depth of that, because the “I” which is given up is just precisely all that in us which obstructs the free creative activity of Transcendence itself.