It's strange how some things stick with me, and so many don't. I've forgotten so much about what happened to me during my childhood, while remembering surprising details.
LIke my mother, an avid reader, telling me about what a noted novelist of the times (can't remember his name) said he did when he heard something unexpected late at night.
He'd glance at his watch to see what time it was. He'd listen for other sounds. He'd focus on anything else that seemed out of the ordinary. The novelist wanted to be prepared in case what he heard was connected with a serious crime, like a murder.
He was making sure that his testimony at the trial would be as accurate as possible.
I've thought about this many times over the years, especially after I started meditating every day after I took up yoga my senior year in college (1969-70; wow, a long time ago). What to focus on in my life, which naturally includes the part of my life when I meditate, has been a fascinating question.
For many years, well over thirty, I believed in repeating a mantra. It concentrated my mind during meditation. It kept me from engaging in a lot of unnecessary "monkey mind" thoughts during the rest of my day.
And I always had something to do when I was otherwise unoccupied. Repeat that mantra.
Which changed from time to time; my first yoga teacher taught a different mantra than the second guru I followed. Later I shortened that mantra on my own, when I became more independent of spiritual dogmatism.
But now I'm much more into mindfulness. Paying attention to what is going on right here, right now.
Mantra meditation focuses attention. Mindfulness also can be concentrative, if someone centers awareness on his/her breath, for example. Yet by and large mindfulness is about being expansively aware, just as the novelist was.
In a murder trial, details are important. I learned this from my almost-obsessive following of the O.J. Simpson trial. The position of a piece of evidence. A speck of blood in a certain location. The exact timing of when a witness saw or heard something.
I'm not saying we should live our lives with the attitude that whatever we're experiencing, we should pay attention to it as closely as we would if we knew we'd have to testify at a murder trial. However, it sure seems like I should know whether I turned the burner off on a stove before I drove into town, or if I locked the front door before heading off to bed.
Increasingly, my attitude is that everything is important to pay attention to.
In my religious days I was focused on BIg Important Stuff. Meditation. Teachings of the guru. Meaning of life. State of my karma-ridden soul. Nature of ultimate reality. Now, cutting an onion to put in the pan where I'm cooking a veggie burger seems as important as anything else.
How do I know what's important, anyway?
What criteria do I have for distinguishing "important" and "unimportant"? If I'm paying attention to what's happening at the moment as if this was evidence that could be used in a murder trial, how can I tell which details are significant, and which aren't?
Here's some excerpts from a book I'm enjoying, Charlotte Joko Beck's "Nothing Special: Living Zen."
There's an old Zen story: a student said to Master Ichu, "Please write for me something of great wisdom." Master Ichu picked up his brush and wrote one word: "Attention." The student said, "Is that all?" The master wrote, "Attention. Attention."
The student became irritable. "That doesn't seem profound to me." In response, Master Ichu wrote simply, "Attention. Attention. Attention." In frustration, the student demanded, "What does this word attention mean?" Master Ichu replied, "Attention means attention."
...We don't want to bother with the "little" things, like how we hold our chopsticks or where we place our spoon. Yet these acts are the stuff of our life, moment to moment. It's not a question of importance; it's a question of paying attention, being aware.
Why? Because every moment in life is absolute in itself. That's all there is. There is nothing other than this present moment; there is no past, there is no future, there is nothing but this. So when we don't pay attention to each little this, we miss the whole thing.
And the contents of this can be anything. This can be straightening our sitting mats, chopping an onion, visiting someone we don't want to visit. It doesn't matter what the contents of the moment are; each moment is absolute.