Tuesday, September 4, 2012

On Paying Attention

Here's a story from long ago in my quest. Enjoy…

Four years after my revelation on the flight back from Europe, when I was in the process of leaving my wife and children, and was out of a job to boot, I went to see an old friend whom I considered a particularly wise man. George was in his late 50s at the time. Earlier in his life, he'd been through a series of breakdowns. They'd been rough, costing him a marriage and his career as a psychiatrist, but he'd come out the other side. I went to see him because I felt he KNEW things. You could see it in his eyes. Also, he was utterly fearless, which meant he'd be straight with me.

He was living in a stone house built by a 19th century tycoon on an island off the coast of Maine. I drove up to Bangor on a dark, November afternoon and he met me and flew me out to the island in an old twin-engine Cessna. After a wonderful baked haddock dinner at one end of a huge wooden table in his kitchen, during which we talked about the old days and traded news of mutual friends, we retired to the living room, where we sat in big wingback chairs on opposite sides of the fire.

"So," he said when we were settled in, "what's on your mind?"

I told him my story, admitted to being confused and conflicted, and asked what he thought.

"You want the truth?" he asked with a crooked little, half-faced smile. "Or would you prefer a brandy?"

I told him I hadn't driven 6 hours and flown over open water in his converted grocery cart just to get plastered.

He stared into my eyes for a few seconds, taking my measure, and said "All right. If it's the truth you want, I'll give it to you. But you have to promise me something."

I said I was desperate enough to promise him anything he liked.

"I want you to promise you'll pay attention."

I assured him I would.

"No, I mean absolute attention. I want you to listen as if your life depended on it."

I told him it might and again assured him I would.

"Good," he said. Then, he paused. After a few seconds, he asked, "Are you listening?"

"George, I'm listening, for Christ's sake."

"No," he remonstrated. "You're not listening. I mean REALLY listening. I mean listening with a completely open mind. I'm talking listening with absolutely no bias, no predisposition, no distracting baggage from your past, nor fear for your future." He let the idea sink in. "Think you can you do it?"

I thought about it. Listening without bias? What did that mean? I'd sought him out in the hope he'd help me sort out my past so I could face my future. Yet he was telling me I had to forget all that. I asked him how what I was about to hear could help me if I had no context for it.

"You'll see," he said. "Trust me."

I told him I did trust him. Then, shrugging, I said, "Okay, what the hell. Geronimo!"

"Good," he said. "Let's do it."

Time passed. He didn't speak. He got up and poked the fire, then sat down again. Still, he didn't speak. He just stared into the fire. After a while, he steepled his hands, rested his chin on his thumbs, and squeezed his nose between the tips of his index fingers. Then he shut his eyes.

All right, I thought, this is some sort of test. He's probably waiting until I've put everything else out of my mind. I'm going to do it. I shut my eyes, too, trying to conjure up an image of pure listening. A gust of wind blew down the chimney. Outside, I could hear the n'oreaster whistling through the hemlocks. For some reason, hearing the wind in the trees led me to think about the top of a giant sequoia, the tippytop, and the highest single cell in the entire tree. I imagined it, 300 feet up, completely unaware of either the vast bulk pushing it from below or the sky into which it was being thrust. I imagined what it would be like to be that tiny cell. Through darkness and light, baking sun and crystallizing cold, utter stillness one minute and the pandemonium of a windstorm the next, and all the while, imperceptibly, at the rate of perhaps a foot a year, ascending into the heavens.

After a while, I heard George get up and leave the room, then come back and sit down again. When a log settled in the fire, it sounded like the roof collapsing in a burning building. The sound came into me in slo-mo, a 3-act play.

Time stopped. I was there in the chair, yet I also wasn't. I felt I was on the verge of sleep, right up against it, so close that I could be asleep by the time I'd finished choosing it. I didn't choose it, though, because I'd already made my choice. I'd chosen to listen and I was doing it with every ounce of my being.

"Well?" George finally asked.

Startled, I opened my eyes and looked over at him. The fire had burned low, causing the light to grow dim, and his head was back in the shadow of the wing of his chair. His eyes reflected the pale yellow light of the hardwood coals.

"Well, what?" I replied.

"Did you get it?"

"I don't know. Get what?"

"The solution to your problem. The answer to your questions."

"Well, actually, I haven't been thinking about my problems."


"What do you mean?"

"When you sat down, shut up, and listened, your problems vanished. That's the truth you asked for."

"That's it?"

"That's it. The Buddhists call it 'mindfulness,' or 'bare attention,' or 'getting out of your own way.' It's all you have to know and now you know it."

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