The Outer Limits of Attention

Ken Kessel on how we, as Buddhist practitioners, should pay attention — even to the things we’re not paying attention to.

By Ken Kessel

“Yula, I,” 2009. Illustration by Anna Oguienko.

Somebody asked the eighth-century Zen master Ma Jo (Chn., Mazu), “What is Buddha?” He said, “Mind is Buddha, Buddha is mind.” Centuries later, Mu Mun (Wumen) commented,

Sun shining, blue sky;
avoid looking around.
Again ask, “What is this?”
Holding stolen goods, shouting, “Innocent!”
That’s his commentary on Ma Jo’s response, particularly the last line. Let’s leave that hanging in the air for a bit; there’s a meaning underneath that.

In another case, Ma Jo’s student Nam Cheon (Nanquan) said, “Mind is not Buddha; cognition is not path.” Here’s Mu Mun’s comment:

Sky is clear, and the sun appears;
rain falls, and the ground is wet.
Feelings spent, talking finished,
only afraid of disbelief. 

I love that phrase: “Only afraid of disbelief.” Mu Mun has two killer last lines in these poems, but especially this “only afraid of disbelief”—it’s a strong teaching, but what in the world is he talking about?

Anytime we’re engaged in something, there’s something at the center of our attention. Because of that, everything else is somewhere toward the edge, maybe just a little off center. And if it feels less relevant, then it’s further away. That’s completely normal—otherwise, it would be hard to get anything done. You have to pay attention to the thing that you’re doing; the things you’re not doing are less central. That’s how any living thing works.

If we ever want to learn something, the things at the margins of our perception have to take center stage for a while.

For human beings, however, there’s also some importance to the things that aren’t at the center of our attention. We experience attention as a kind of constant flow—if the flow works well, then attention moves easily from the edge to the middle and back and forth. Again, that’s normal, like water flowing into a pond, or clouds and weather patterns passing in the sky as we go about our daily lives. Things take center stage temporarily, and then, when there’s sufficient closure, there’s a transformation to the next moment. If things didn’t happen that way, nothing would happen.

Our consciousness and our habits tend to rely on predictable flow and structure. There’s a benefit to that. Without it, we wouldn’t know how to anticipate anything, and we wouldn’t be able to put things in order. But naturally, anything that has a benefit also has a danger, and the danger here is that we start to expect that the flow will continue in one direction—that the things that are central will stay central, and the things that are peripheral will (and should) stay peripheral.

Of course, there are things at the margins of our perceptions. It’s marginalized perception. (Maybe you already see where I’m going.) Marginalized perception is potentially dangerous because the things at the margins become unfamiliar. We other our own mind. We other our own experiences. This is the same thing we do with people—somebody who is not like us is other, and therefore permanently so. There’s a danger to that.

But at the root of that danger is how we other our own perceptions, how we notice the things at the margins and decide, that’s not me. When that happens, we start to perceive them as threats to who we are. We have to exert some energy to keep them from encroaching—if they get too close, then I won’t be me anymore. We find something to protect ourselves from, so we protect ourselves.

If we ever want to learn something, though, we can’t protect ourselves. The marginalized things have to take center stage for a while; we need to look at them and understand what it’s like to be intimate with that, too. In fact, the flow of life is intimacy with that flow, that reverse flow of attention. Blocking that flow prevents intimacy. It prevents learning.

There’s something to examine about the experience of choicelessness. I don’t want to call it a practice, exactly—if I do, then it subtly promotes an internal experience in which you sit down and say to yourself, “Now I’m going to be choiceless. Oops. That wasn’t choicelessness. I’m doing it wrong.” It’s not that. Choicelessness is like a mirror reflecting what comes before it, without discrimination.

Zen Master Seung Sahn would say, “Red comes, red. Blue comes, blue. Somebody’s happy, haha. Somebody’s sad, ohhh what can I do?” The mirror doesn’t decide what emotions to reflect, what experiences to reflect. Mind has that same quality. It even goes beyond the quality of a mirror, because it’s not entirely passive. It’s a choicelessness that allows the flow back and forth.

One evening, I began chanting the Heart Sutra. I hadn’t chanted anything yet that day, so my voice wasn’t a resonant chanting voice when I started. I noticed a certain tightness, a thinness in the resonance. If I hadn’t chanted, I wouldn’t have noticed it. And if I never chant, then that tightness and thinness might become the default setting for my voice. Unless I have a wish to sing, there’s probably no great harm in that. But then I would have an uncharacteristic vocal posture that affects how I communicate and how I move my body around the act of communication. Some people study these things in relationship to communication and health. They would understand the long-term effects of this; it’s something that’s central in their field of vision but peripheral in mine. I just notice it.

If we inquire, we can see that this quality is true of any of our experiences. If I notice in sitting that my back hurts, it may well be that I’m not doing yoga properly. Or maybe my knees hurt. Or my mind. If I don’t stay still, I don’t have the opportunity for this kind of choiceless awareness of things, for things to flow into my field of vision. I only really look at them when I sit still and let them gravitate into the center of my consciousness.

I have some choices to make in this choicelessness. Can I embrace whatever has come to the center? Or do I give in to my discomfort and marginalize it again? How do I work with that kind of discomfort? If I’m feeling that during sitting, it’s unlikely that anybody else in the room can see it—but it also may feel as if everybody does. If I see that as part of how life happens for this human, then I see that’s how life happens for humans, generally. I’m the human whose life I’m looking at, but it’s a human thing to do.

When we think about issues of social justice or politics, that kind of larger flow, obviously there’s marginalization there as well. The things that seem important to me are the things that are right in front of me. If I can maintain the flow of things so that my current situation is sufficiently comfortable and supportive, then in a way, that’s all I have to care about—if I’m just thinking about me. My house is comfortable, water flows, the stove works, my refrigerator is full, my health is okay, good! In our culture, I’m not asked to think about how the vegetables got to my kitchen, or what happens to the water after it leaves the sink. What happens to the gasoline in my car after I drive? I just know that I’ve got it.

 If I want to plant a tree from a sapling, and I’ve acquired the sapling, I would do well to dig a hole. There’s going to be leftover dirt, but I don’t necessarily have to think too much about it. If I want to, I can pull all of it back and make a little mound around the tree. Or I can throw the dirt over my shoulder, over the fence—now it’s my neighbor’s problem. I don’t have to think about it. Maybe I have a bag of peat moss I bought from the nursery. I’ll just fill out the hole with that better stuff, and the neighbor can deal with the dirt that I threw on their property. I don’t care. That’s not my business anymore.

Now, I’m marginalizing the dirt; I’m also marginalizing my neighbor. That kind of thing happens all the time, all around the world. It’s feels natural to people—collectively, we don’t pay attention. Some cultures, however, care more about paying attention, and if we take up Buddhist practice, then we care about it a lot. If we’re not comfortable with what’s at the margins of our own mind, then it’s very hard to be comfortable with the people who are at the margins of our culture’s benefits. We aren’t asked to care about them; they’re at the margins. But of course, where they are, they’re not “they.” Where they are, they’re not at the margins, either.

Unfortunately, the flow of our attention syncs with the flow of resources, so if I’m in a fortunate position, then how I marginalize others affects them more than how they marginalize me affects me. We both do it, but with effects that differ in their impact. If we’re both willing to move ourselves into the middle together, then there’s an opportunity for a kind of clear discernment; learning happens, concern appears, and compassion and wisdom follow. The ones whose marginalizing has the greater impact, however, also have the greater responsibility to examine this and to initiate that movement.

For me, that’s relevant to how our practice affects our navigation in the broader world—it allows us to develop clear discernment. Couples learn that lesson by living with each other—whatever I’m marginalizing for me, I’m also marginalizing for my partner, and if she wants to bring it into my awareness and I don’t want to see it, then I’ve marginalized her. I’m not listening anymore. I’m not even listening to me, so why should I listen to her? And vice versa. Couples whose faces shine don’t do that as much. They recognize when they’re doing it. They’re willing to be choiceless.

How does Zen training fit into this? It involves a particular kind of focus, direction, and discipline; it’s not just for our own personal benefit. In training, your concern is about the training you’re doing at the moment and how to do it well. You care about it, so in effect, you’re training in how to care. It’s a practice of remaining there, in the middle of your awareness, as you allow the flow of attention from the margins to the middle.

We have a pediatrician in our local sangha. If, when he entered medical school, he had said to himself, “Many children are dying every day, and here I am studying textbooks. That’s not helping these children. I should put aside my books and go help them,” it’s entirely possible that he could have put aside his books and gone to help them—just not as a doctor. It’s not that helping is impossible but that you haven’t done the training you decided to do. So that’s part of it, too. While you’re busy getting trained, something’s happening on the margins that’s not part of your current training. That’s the nature of training.

During the six years that Buddha was busy pre-buddha-ing, nobody received the benefit of his teaching. What a waste of time! He could have gone around teaching anyway. But he didn’t. After his enlightenment, people called him Buddha. They listened. After this pediatrician got his MD, finished his residency, and got certified by the state, then people listened.

There’s no particular point in bemoaning the things you aren’t doing. If we stay intimate with the things that are central, then things that are peripheral will move there, because that’s how mind works.

Everybody’s life experience is like that—things move closer to the center, where we can be more intimate with them as a benefit. We all do it. The doctor, through his training, moved things from the margins to the center for our benefit. In that way, when something from the margin comes to the center of my own experience, there’s somebody who’s more familiar with it than I am, and that person can help me.

We also have two artists in our sangha. They, too, take things that, for me, would be peripheral awareness, and they make them central. For one, it’s visual and sculptural awareness—the awareness of forms and materials and how to be intimate with that. I don’t know that in the same way she does. For the other, it’s awareness of the body, motion, music, and the collaboration that arises from that. I don’t know that thing in that way—but if I watch her perform, then I can appreciate how she’s lived in that something. Through her, it isn’t as marginal for me anymore.

Whatever any one of us is doing, each of us is centrally involved in something that, for others, is more peripheral.

When we engage in that flow collectively, we form an ecosystem of mind. There’s no particular point in bemoaning the things you aren’t doing. If we stay intimate with the things that are central, then things that are peripheral will move there, because that’s how mind works. That’s how mind works when you’re sitting on the cushion. That’s how mind works when we’re engaging in the course of our life. This practice is to help us intentionally embrace that, to live it, and to feel grateful about that with each other.

Back to the poem: “Sun shining, blue sky / avoid looking around.” What’s central becomes central when it needs to be central. Otherwise, somebody is holding stolen goods, shouting, “Innocent!” Maybe you. Maybe somebody else. But they’ve stolen mind, not material things.

 “Sky is clear, and the sun appears / rain falls, and the ground is wet.” Every moment, feeling spent. Every moment, talking finished. If you don’t believe that, then you have something to fear. If you do believe that, then even if something is scary, there’s a certain kind of fearlessness in that. It isn’t what we think it is.

Ken Kessel

Ken Kessel

Ken Kessel (Zen Master Jok Um) received transmission in the Kwan Um School of Zen. He’s a licensed clinical social worker, specializing in infant mental health.