Letter 40: Attention and detachment

The main qualities essential for meditation are ‘attention’ and ‘detachment’. These qualities seem to be opposite, but they actually are complementary. We need to know when “to care and not to care.” (TS Eliot – Ash Wednesday). We need to focus caringly and faithfully on our mantra and leave our thoughts and cares temporarily behind.

These qualities in turn then spill over in our ordinary life. We need to know, when it is important to focus our attention on something to possibly change things and when to ignore what is inevitable. Thus we learn to accept life as it is, not as we would like it to be. We learn to become non-attached to our opinions as to how things ought to be. And slowly we learn to let go. In doing so we then discover what we are giving up is something we only thought we needed or wanted.

In Meditations on the Tarota profound study of Christian thought, recommended to me by Fr Bede Griffiths OSB, which used the Major Arcana of the Tarot cards as archetypes around which the anonymous author reflects on profound insights into Christian spirituality, a clear distinction is made between ‘ disinterested concentration’ i.e. ‘concentration without effort’ and ‘interested concentration’, ‘concentration with effort’:

“A monk absorbed in prayer and an enraged bull is, the one and the other, concentrated. But the one is in the peace of contemplation whilst the other is carried away by rage. Strong passions therefore realise themselves as a high degree of concentration….but it is not a matter of concentration but rather obsession…True concentration is a free act in light and in peace. It presupposes a disinterested and detached will.”

Interested concentration implies an effort of the will. If you ask children to concentrate they furrow their brow and you can see their body tensing up. Disinterested concentration is effortless and has an element of play in it. A child engrossed in play forgets everything else and when called does not even hear his or her name. It is this effortless playful attitude we need, which will allow us to accept what is, will free us from distraction and unify our mind, helping us to focus totally on what is at hand.

The story Paulo Coelho tells in the prologue to his book ‘Manual of the Warrior of Light’ beautifully illustrates the difference between concentration and effortless attention:

‘A wise, beautiful woman suggests to a boy to go and visit a temple. He can’t find the temple at all. When he asked fishermen nearby, he is told that the temple was submerged in the sea after an earthquake long ago and that only the bells could still sometimes be heard. The boy then sits down on the beach trying very hard but unsuccessfully to hear these bells. He loses interest in anything else, puts his whole will into the effort to hear. Added to that, he now dreams of finding hidden treasure under the waves. He slowly shuts out all natural sounds around him, fixed in his desire to discover the temple and its riches, but in vain. Finally he decides to give up. He walked down to the ocean to say goodbye. He looked once more at the natural world around him and because he was no longer concerned about the bells, he could again smile at the beauty of the seagulls’ cries, the roar of the sea and the wind blowing in the palm trees. Far off he heard the sound of his friends playing and he felt glad to think that he would soon resume his childhood games. The boy was happy and – as only a child can- he felt grateful for being alive. Then, because he was listening to the sea, the seagulls, the wind in the palm trees and the voices of his friends playing, he also heard the first bell. And then another. And another, until, to his great joy, all the bells in the drowned temple were ringing.’

Without effort, by not trying, by not wanting to achieve anything, but by accepting what is, we hear the silence and become the silence: “Music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.” (T.S. Eliot) Only acceptance of self, including our thoughts, and everything around us leads to silence, and silence in turn leads to knowledge of the true reality and the truth of our own being.

Kim Nataraja