Monday, September 13, 2010

Curious Attention, No Shake & Bake Answers

"When an object appears familiar, it's a certainty that I'm merely seeing my ideas of the object rather than the object itself. Furthermore, the idea I form of an object is invariably a "rounding off" of the object to accommodate a categorical generalization, whereas the object itself is always sharp, specific to this exact moment, and doesn't repeat itself. Categorical generalizations render actual objects, persons, and events into types of objects, persons, and events. There are in reality no such types, but only the discreet things themselves."
Lin Jensen from "Together Under One Roof"

I'm reading Jensen's lovely little book of reminiscences of a life viewed through the lens of the Dharma and when I stumbled upon the above paragraph I paused. It struck me how I live most of my life in this way, viewing the world through the slightly foggy lens of my ideas. It is easy and comfortable and habitual and quite human. True wonder happens when we really pause and just see something, someone, without our cherished opinions and our "knowing", delegating our mind to its appropriate role of good servant as opposed to megalomanic master.

Even, or perhaps especially in drawing or painting "the knowing", the idea gets in the way of seeing. I was talking with someone about this just the other day. If I think I know what a head looks like I fill in where I think certain lines and shapes should be. I get ahead of myself (ridiculous, pitiful pun intended). When I go back and look with care or trick the mind by looking at the negative space or holding a photo upside down, I often see how wrong "my ideas" about how a head looks are. Yet the mind is quick to jump straight to the idea. It takes care and vigilance and discipline and patience to just see.

Jensen goes on to observe: "When I give this sort of curious attention a try, I'm surprised at how unfamiliar the neighbourhood is. This fresh strangeness is the gift of attention." And that's just it isn't it? Habitual thoughts and ways of seeing things are so predictable and familiar. I have run over them with my mind enough times to put them out of their misery but still they keep resurrecting themselves in the same boring form each time. But to really see each thing brings a freshness to life. Walking down a trail today I noticed an Arbutus leaf curled upward, a tiny leaf cup, filled with water, patterned with shining shades of green and yellow and orange. Not just a leaf, not a label, not a dry, stale known thing, a leaf like no other. But mostly the mind runs over one thing ( oh yes, pretty fall leaves, lovely damp trail), and on to the next, looking for excitement, drama or danger, something more worthy of its attention, always moving like a hungry monkey.

Jensen's observations about "truly seeing" people reminds me of my Zen teacher's constant reminder to students that there are no generalizations that can be applied to life's difficult situations. Our questions at Dharma talks were always on the prowl for generalization that would make our lives easier. We wanted simple formulas and little recipes that we could apply in our semi-awakened or fully somnambulant state but our wise teacher always reminded us that each situation needed to be carefully considered on it's own merit. A similar situation with different people or on different days might require a totally different response, no canned, pre packaged, shake and bake answers. And if we are paying attention and responding from that immediate place we find an appropriate response.

And she was clear that we needed to look carefully at the details of any interaction. When I would describe a difficult situation with my mother she would ask questions, "did she say thank-you." And I'd say something like, "I don't remember, but she was so negative." After a few of these exchanges, I'd get the picture that I hadn't really been paying attention. I'd been working on the premise that my mother was always negative. I was working with "my idea of my mother". And so trouble was perpetuated as I skated along on the slippery surface of my ideas.

So Jensen extends the invitation to us to abandon our ideas of how things are and wander out into the fields of bare attention to directly experience our world. I am setting the hay bale table out in the field. Will you join me? I promise there will be no shake & bake.


  1. Well, there must be something in the air - you with thoughts, me with feelings :). When we really sit with something with awareness, we discover essentially the same thing: "True wonder happens when we really pause and just see...with curious really see brings a freshness to life." I love those direct experiences with a clear lens... :)

    Love the colors, movement and softness in your painting today.

  2. yes, i will certainly join you at the hay bale table...

    thank you for this... (as always)