I've shared strategies for using movies to strengthen attention. Just as in ordinary life, what makes tending to the sensory components of a film so challenging is the pull of the narrative. But what would it be like to focus on the changing sights and sounds without having to resist the gravitational pull of story elements?
"Suspended is a collaborative film between artist Chloe Early and filmmaker Andrew Telling. The film is a meditative response exploring the characters, colour and motion in the work Chloe Early has created for her new show Suspended."
Every known visual system depends on movement: we see things either because they move or because our eyes do.
Some of the earliest clues to this came more than two centuries ago. Erasmus Darwin, a grandfather of Charles Darwin, observed in 1794 that staring at a small piece of scarlet silk on white paper for a long time — thereby minimizing (though not stopping) his eye movements — made it grow fainter in color, until it seemed to vanish...
What may be most surprising is that large eye motions and miniature eye jolts help us see the world in similar ways — largely at the same time.
Scientists had long believed that we used two types of oculomotor behavior to sample the visual world, alternating between big saccades to scan our surroundings and tiny ones to fix our gaze on a location of interest. Explore, fixate, repeat, all day, every day.
It seemed to make intuitive sense that we would have one brain system for exploring the environment and another for focusing on specific objects. But it turns out that exploration and gaze-fixation are not all that different processes in the brain.
First, it isn’t the case that the mind is inherently thinking all the time. Rather, thinking is a highly conditioned activity. In the teachings, the process is described in this way: We come into contact with things—objects in the world or our own thoughts. Each moment of such contact is accompanied by feeling which is pleasant, painful, or neither. Whatever is being cognized is then named. The Pali word for this is sañña. Most often, it is translated as perception but the English word “sign” comes from the same root as sañña. Sañña is a kind of designation. There is a raw sensing of a stimulus and then our memory moves in and names it. “That is the sound of a dog barking.”
Conceptual thought begins to cluster around that naming. That is, that which we name, we then think about. This is called vitakka. We may think, “I wonder who owns that dog.” “Is that the same dog I saw yesterday?” Then vitakka takes off. It blossoms into what is known as papañca. This is conceptual proliferation. It is the mass of thoughts and conceptions, which burden the heart and mind.
In this process there is a simple raw feeling, sensation or thought. There is no particular feeling of self or other with that. But as the process takes off, as the naming takes place, we begin to get a sense of me in here experiencing the sound of that dog out there. As the thinking (vitakka) kicks in, the sense of self and other becomes more concrete and the sense of me not only experiencing this but also being burdened by it becomes more and more solid.
As meditators I am sure you have seen this pattern. With practice, we start to recognize this pattern. We see how it works.
Usually we are caught up in the activity of mental proliferation—half way through our great novel or fully through the saga of how our first marriage could have been “if only…”—before we wake up and remember that we’re actually still in the meditation hall, and that it all started with the sound of the dog barking. “That sound reminded me of Binker, our dog. We got the dog when we first got married. Maybe if we hadn’t had the dog, the marriage would have worked out.” Then we track it back and see where it began.
As meditators we see how this pattern occurs over and over again. The mind’s propensity is to think habitually. It takes almost nothing to trigger it. For example, I spent most of my youth listening to rock music at every opportunity. So when I entered the monastery in Thailand, I spent the first few years singing inside my head. My mind was so used to listening to music that for the first few years everything that happened at the monastery was a cue for a song. It could be a leaf falling off a tree or a car going by. It could be the clanking of a kerosene tin or comments that people made. It could even be just the random thoughts in my mind. Any one event, word or thought could translate into a lyric. It was like a Bing Crosby and Bob Hope movie: “That sounds like a cue for a song...” Before you know it you are playing the entire soundtrack. I was staggered by the amount that the mind remembered and conjured up!
That is the mind’s habitual mode. It picks things up, chews on them and keeps creating—all from a moment’s stimulation...
So for myself, I have learned that the best way to deal with excessive thinking is to just listen to it, to listen to the mind. Listening is much more effective than trying to stop thought or cut it off. When we listen there is a different mode employed in the heart. Instead of trying to cut it off, we receive thought without making anything out of it.
Plagued by Doubt, Thomas Wightman
Amaro, A. (July 20, 2010). Thinking: I. Understanding and relating to thought. Mindfulness, 1, 3, 189-192. Retrieved from Springer Link.
"Where I'm staying now in Pacific Palisades, California, when I look out the window I can see the pacific ocean. And in California this kind of property is very expensive. Why? Well, at a deep level I think it is because you are paying to be able to, at anytime you want, go out on your veranda and have your sensory experience literally—literally—inundated by the flow of nature. Now, a person who [practices] these [mindfulness] techniques is able to have that prime real estate available 24/7, wherever they may be. Because they are on vacation in the flow of their own senses, even if they are driving in rush-hour traffic on the freeway, they are still in the same state of flow as the clouds and the rivers. And that is the payoff for doing this work. "
My father and I on the sofa talked about summer plans, would he drive from New York to Ohio? It seemed doubtful (he was eighty-six) and he said. We'll see what comes to pass. For a minute we were silent. He said, That's an interesting idiom, isn't it. To come to pass. "It came to pass." There's a feeling of both coming and going at the same time. Yeah, I said. I wondered what movie we might see. He said, It's quite different to say "It happened"— that sounds like a stop, like a fixed point. But "It came to pass" — there's almost a feeling of "It came in order to pass." Yeah, I said, that's right. He said, You get a sense of the transience of everything. Yes, I said. Cleo the black cat lay snoozing across my father's legs. My father stroked her gently. I finished my raspberry iced tea.
"In the act of writing the poem, I am obedient, and submissive. Insofar as one can, I put aside ego and vanity, and even intention. I listen. What I hear is almost a voice, almost a language. It is a second ocean, rising, singing into one’s ear, or deep inside the ears, whispering in the recesses where one is less oneself than a part of some single indivisible community. Blake spoke of taking dictation. I am no Blake, yet I know the nature of what he meant. Every poet knows it. One learns the craft, and then casts off. One hopes for gifts. One hopes for direction. It is both physical, and spooky. It is intimate, and inapprehensible. Perhaps it is for this reason that the act of first-writing, for me, involves nothing more complicated than paper and pencil. The abilities of a typewriter or computer would not help in this act of slow and deep listening."
One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice- though the whole house began to tremble and you felt the old tug at your ankles. “Mend my life!” each voice cried. But you didn’t stop. You knew what you had to do, though the wind pried with its stiff fingers at the very foundations, though their melancholy was terrible.
It was already late enough, and a wild night, and the road full of fallen branches and stones. But little by little, as you left their voices behind, the stars began to burn through the sheets of clouds, and there was a new voice which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world, determined to do the only thing you could do- determined to save the only life that you could save.
"A living body is not a fixed thing but a flowing event, like a flame or a whirlpool: the shape alone is stable, for the substance is a stream of energy going in at one end and out at the other. We are particularly and temporarily identifiable wiggles in a stream that enters us in the form of light, heat, air, water, milk, bread, fruit, beer, beef Stroganoff, caviar, and pate de foie gras. It goes out as gas and excrement -- and also as semen, babies, talk, politics, commerce, war, poetry, and music. And philosophy."
"The conversational nature of reality means that whatever you want from life will not occur in exactly the way you’d like it to. But, also, whatever life wants from you – society wants from you, your parents want from you, your partner wants from you, your children want from you – will also not occur. And that what occurs is this third quality which is more like a meeting and a dynamic of the two, a conversation between the two."
"For most people the senses are opaque. A window is opaque if it is covered by soot; light can't come through. The soot is craving, aversion, and ignorance. When that's cleared away, the ordinary senses become literally transparent. It is very hard to describe what this is like."
"It seems to me that the intention of all these practices is to cultivate attention, either by practicing attention directly or by removing what prevents attention from developing. Once attention is present, appropriate action, skillful means, bodhicitta, everything else flows quite naturally. There is no need for minute dissections of Buddhist ethics or philosophy. The phrase ‘Be there or be square’ acquired a new meaning for me. Very simply, attention reveals buddha nature and enables it to manifest in our lives...
Once I shifted my effort to paying attention to what was arising, doors started to open. I began to see a little more clearly what was going on. I'd had to let go of old ways of looking at things, some that I had learned in the course of my training, others going back much further to family patterns. The patterns became apparent. The function and purpose of the patterns also became apparent...
Bring the attention to what is arising and we know, directly, what needs to be done. This changed not only my own practice but how I tried to teach others. The source of that knowing is buddha nature. And the practice is very simple in principle: strip away whatever prevents it from manifesting.
The first words got polluted Like river water in the morning Flowing with the dirt Of blurbs and the front pages. My only drink is meaning from the deep brain, What the birds and the grass and the stones drink. Let everything flow Up to the four elements, Up to water and earth and fire and air.
Hierve de Aqua, San Lorenzo Albarradas, Oaxaca (October 2010)