There is a story that went around a few years ago:
A US naval ship and Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland engaged in a radio conversation. The conversation was this:
US Ship: Please divert your course 0.5 degrees to the south to avoid a collision.
CND reply: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
US Ship: This is the Captain of a US Navy Ship. I say again, divert your course.
CND reply: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course!
US Ship: (Voice urgent and curt) THIS IS THE AIRCRAFT CARRIER USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN, THE SECOND LARGEST SHIP IN THE UNITED STATES' ATLANTIC FLEET. WE ARE ACCOMPANIED BY THREE DESTROYERS, THREE CRUISERS AND NUMEROUS SUPPORT VESSELS. I DEMAND THAT YOU CHANGE YOUR COURSE 15 DEGREES NORTH. THAT'S ONE-FIVE DEGREES NORTH, OR COUNTERMEASURES WILL BE UNDERTAKEN TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF THIS SHIP.
CND reply: This is a lighthouse. Your call.
Actually, the story isn’t true, but it illustrates a good point. It is our habit energies, our acting without attention that get us into trouble. We encounter an obstacle and ignore all warning signs that a new approach may be needed. This blind action, what is often called habit energy, can get lead us into more suffering. Often when we are in the midst of habit energy, we are experiencing the separation or desire to withdraw from others, and it is this energy that makes us afraid to open up our awareness.
What is cultivating attention?
Quite simply it means paying attention to the present moment. It means to be alert, to observe, and be aware from moment to moment.
Think of a microscope. If we are to study an object, we get out a microscope, adjust the setting, and focus the lens so that we can see the object in more detail. This is what we do when practicing mindfulness. The object becomes us. We focus on our bodies, our minds, and emotions. When we practice mindful attention regularly, the action of manipulating our focus on ourselves becomes easier and concentration arises naturally. Without practice, our minds shift from past to future thinking, we get preoccupied with being busy, and we lose connection to what is happening at the moment. We lose connection to what we are experiencing right now. You cannot see clearly if you are shaking the microscope back and forth, or if you are engaged with other tasks other than putting your eye to the eyepiece. We need to practice mindful attention by staying focused on the task at hand moment by moment.
There is a kind of paradox to practicing mindful attention, however. In Sanskrit, the word for mindful attention is Smriti, which also means “that which is remembered”. The paradox is that when we most need to practice mindful attention, it has slipped away from us. The paradox of mindfulness is occurring at these moments: we need it more when we aren’t using it!
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A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members