Giving others our full attention is such a simple thing, and yet how often do we do it? Whether the person we are with is dying or living, attention is one of the greatest treasures we can give them.
It is only when you bring all your senses to bear on whoever or whatever is in front of you that you will know how to proceed. We tend to approach most things with preconceived ideas. We carry forward whatever we noticed on earlier occasions, in the belief that it will be useful this time. There is an unspoken assumption that we do not need to pay much attention this time, because “we’ve done it before.” But no two situations are exactly the same, and this habit can be very costly. Centuries ago Heraclitus pointed out that you cannot step twice into the same river, and hardly any of us have taken his observation to heart.
When you are faced with a physical task, you need to put your attention on the place where the work is happening. For instance, if you are hammering a nail into the wall, you may think that you should focus on the head of the nail. However, the work is actually taking place where the nail is going into the wall, so put your mind right there, while you watch the hammer hit the nail. This will enable the nail to go straight in. If you are trying to unscrew a recalcitrant jar, let your attention rest in the space between the metal and the glass as you twist. You may think that there isn’t any space there, but obviously there must be, or the two would be glued together.
We are always anticipating that something better (or worse) is about to happen, but it is good to keep in mind that wonderful Gahan Wilson cartoon in which two men are sitting on cushions in the zendo, and have obviously been there for some time. Then the monk leans over and whispers into the ear of the novice: “Nothing happens next. This is it.”
In order to see what is going on in any given moment, we need to have our attention out, rather than in (which, unfortunately, is where it is most of the time). Instead of being carried along by the flow of events, or retreating from it, we need to be right here. There is just this moment. Being present is the only way to appreciate the divine. I don’t know how we got it into our heads that whatever is going on right now is probably not that important, but it is a very pervasive view, even though in 1242 Zen Master Dogen observed, “Each day is valuable…. Do not compare it with a dragon’s bright pearl. A dragon’s pearl may be found. But this one day out of a hundred years cannot be retrieved once it is lost.”