Posts Tagged ‘Attention’

The problem with your work ethic

April 16th, 2009    -    7 Comments

I’m going to share this with you because, well, she said it.

Dad, what do you do when you are at work and you are done with your work?

I keep working.

No, I said when you are done with your work.

I’m never done with my work.

Pooh! That’s no fun.

Now entering the motherland

April 12th, 2009    -    11 Comments


Last week I was reminded of one of the most refreshing aspects of an arduous trip to a foreign country: not speaking the language. What sweet relief! Being utterly, absolutely free of language and its insidious effect on me: reading, talking, eavesdropping, writing, judging, second guessing, comparing, competing and then, and then, and then. Last week I didn’t read, blog or bloviate. I didn’t charge ahead. I didn’t fall behind. I didn’t make a list. Here I’m home but for two hours, and the list is already lengthening at my side, the pen squiggling across the lines of my journal even as I fight a reunion with the cherished sleep I missed most dearly.

I’m striving again. We’re all striving. If we’re not striving, we might wonder, what then?

As I rapid-fire clicked through emails and blogs I returned twice to Kelly, who today stands in the nowhere between a very sick mother and a very sick sister:

The most challenging part of all the illness around me is accepting that I have absolutely no ability to help anyone get better.

That is the truest thing I haven’t said lately. Being with someone who is sick or dying can seem like being in a foreign country. Or a foreign airport, in my case, in an unmoving line leading to one Lufthansa ticket agent hammering uselessly into a broken computer while the cushiony minutes to takeoff disappear. The most challenging part is accepting that I have absolutely no ability to help. There’s no striving. There’s just being. And even though there is no striving in just being, some folks will tell you that there must be a way to steer the being along better. Not just a way to do nothing, but a right way, a good way, to do nothing.

I don’t subscribe to that expertise. We are all amateurs at death; in the same way we are all amateurs at life, although we rarely give ourselves permission. For those of us whose part in dire hours is to sit it out and sit beside, our part is to just sit. Sitting with my mother and my father as they died was the most intimate act I’ve ever known. And while I do not think it more sacred than going nowhere at a ticket counter, it was no less sacred.

You see, when it looks and feels as if we are doing nothing, we’re actually doing quite a bit. We are standing still on one of those slow-motion moving walkways stretching from terminal A to terminal E. We are crossing a threshold all the while, crossing a border whose demarcation is all but imperceptible. We are entering the motherland, the pure land, and in that nowhere else, we are coming home.

A tribute to my mother, and to everyone’s mother, on the eighth anniversary of her death April 13, 2001.

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Cut off her head with a pencil

March 28th, 2009    -    18 Comments


A reader wrote the other day with a bit of earnest confusion that gave me a quick tickle. Earnestness tends to promote hilarity. She said she’d finished the book and pretty much liked it until part of the last chapter that she didn’t understand.

Frankly, I can never imagine how my writing perplexes. To me, I’m always blathering about the most literal, obvious, barenaked things. Perhaps I can’t imagine the confusion because I’m so lousy at imagining.

The reader wondered if by skipping over the evil parts of fairy tales when reading to my wee daughter, did I do that for Buddhist reasons?

This is a very good question, and one that few would be sincere enough to ask.

Did I do it to overcome dualism? So that I didn’t present the dichotomy of good versus bad? Did I likewise edit out so-called good parts? To teach nonjudgmental equanimity? Which is to say, even-mindedness?

This is a question that points to the very trouble with Buddhism.

I laughed the moment I saw it, because no philosophy, Buddhist or otherwise, has ever guided my parenting. Philosophies aren’t very effective at guiding anything. It’s like learning how to drive by studying the motor vehicle code.

So I want to take a minute to make it clear. Many people want to be better, to do good, to raise better children, to save the world, to promote peace, etc. etc. and they reach for a philosophy to do it. Buddhism seems like a pretty nice one. But then, all philosophies are pretty nice ones. They just don’t ever seem to change behavior very much. (See items 1-10.)

What I apply in parenting is not an ideology or worldview, it is not Buddhism or any -ism. It is the magnificent, miraculous, intelligent, intuitive product of Buddhist practice. What I apply, on those lucky days I can find it, is attention.

Attention is what works when I crack open a Disney Read-Aloud Princess Storybook and see that the evil stepmother is about to dispatch an axeman to lop off Snow White’s head. Attention alerts me that it is an inappropriate and unwelcome image to insert into my baby’s silky haired noggin, especially at bedtime. So I skip it, and when my girl points to the picture of the hatchet and asks what it is, I say, “a pencil.”

Until you practice, you might have a hard time believing that attention alone can spontaneously direct and correct behavior without the substructure of a philosophy. A set of prescribed rights and wrongs. Or in the Buddhist sense, a set of prescribed non-right rights and non-wrong wrongs.

People are fond of saying about their chosen ethics or morality, “How else will we know right from wrong?” And I ask this: beneath your skin, in your bones, within your heart, have you ever not known right from wrong? Just attend to that knowing.

Attention alone is what assuages anger, abates greed, and promotes kindness. Attention alone is even-minded. Attention is love, and love always knows what to do.

I’m so glad you wrote and brought it to my attention.

Tall trees grow in full sun

March 9th, 2009    -    5 Comments


Still soaked from the shine of your full attention, I offer my thanks to the mothers of Palo Alto and everywhere whose lives met mine at the Mothers Symposium at Stanford on Saturday. Tremendous, great good went into it, and tremendous great good will come.

You’ve inspired me to offer my own retreats, my own programs, as many as I can, wherever I’m asked. Please ask.

And to those of you reading, yes you, who were there: I’m so honored to know you by name.

In gassho.

Great minds don’t think

March 5th, 2009    -    4 Comments

Before I leave you for a weekend of higher learning, I’ll offer this link to a compelling tribute to the lost genius of the novelist David Foster Wallace. It’s in this week’s New Yorker magazine.

“I believe I want adult sanity, which seems to me the only unalloyed form of heroism available today.”

The article traces Wallace’s unfulfilled “preoccupation with mindfulness.”

“They’re rare, but they’re among us. People able to achieve and sustain a certain steady state of concentration, attention, despite what they’re doing.”

Give yourself the time to read it, all, along with this excerpt from his unfinished work. I know you have the time, and I pray you have the attention.

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