Realizing the mind’s a mess is where everyone starts. Our only lever is attention itself.

If anything can reliably fuel the commitment to practice, it’s the recognition that we ourselves are responsible for how we occupy the mind, and that our choices determine not only who we are but what we will become. The Buddha said, ‘We are what we think. All that we are arises from our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make our world.’ Really, this is very good news. Attention is transformative. The thoughts and states of mind we experience now are the results of how we’ve used our minds in the past. By using the mind skillfully now, we make possible clearer and more responsive states of mind in the future.

So we sign up, telling ourselves, ‘I’m going to cultivate attention.’ And then the trouble begins. Attention itself is simple and easy. In this moment, we can direct the mind wherever we like. But as anyone who sits discovers, it’s anything but easy to maintain that initial moment of attention. The mind wants to keep doing what it’s always done, and for nearly everyone that means escaping from this moment of attention into the future or the past, into worries and daydreams. It happens without our awareness — for a moment we turn our attention to the breath or to our koan, and in the next moment the mind is hijacked. Often attention is lost so quickly, we feel as if we’ve failed to pay attention at all.

Realizing the mind’s a mess is where everyone starts. When you’re floating with the stream, you don’t realize how powerful and relentless it is. But when you stop mindlessly identifying with your thoughts and feelings, they’re suddenly in your face. You become aware to some degree of what’s been going on for your whole life, and it can be disorienting and even discouraging. Nevertheless, it’s a call to practice. You’re hardly unique. This is the battle that everyone who aspires to a life of awareness has to fight.

So let’s say our determination is strong. We’ve accepted on a deep level that we alone are responsible for our lives, and we’ve come to understand that genuine effort is going to be required. Now we have to learn how to sustain attention — or in other words, how to practice — and here we come to grips with the paradoxical nature of mind. To put it simply, attention and intending to pay attention are not the same thing. Most people’s tendency is to approach the difficulties of practice with the same set of mental tools they’ve been using for nearly every other challenge in their lives. Unfortunately, the rational, problem-solving mind cannot be successfully used to control the mind. It’s great for figuring out how to pack a suitcase or diagnose car trouble but not so great for working with mental formations — with trying to let go, for example, of cravings or anxieties. The classic example is the challenge not to think of an elephant. The effort itself keeps the elephant alive in the mind. And in the same way, by holding in our mind our resolve to remain attentive or by holding a picture of what that attentive state should feel like, we’re immediately divided between the object of our attention and our conscious attempt to pay attention.

Undivided attention is simpler and more direct than we imagine. It’s not a matter of technique, we can’t follow a formula, and ultimately no one can tell us how to become absorbed. Our only lever is attention itself. When we notice we’re no longer attending to the breath or to the koan, we drop whatever we’ve become preoccupied with and redirect the mind. We come back again and again. Our concern is not clearer states of mind we may achieve in the future. It’s not monitoring our present state of mind and judging how well we’re succeeding. In order to pay complete attention, we have to give up grasping at anything. As soon as we try to create an effect, we’ve taken our eye off the ball. The effect (the state of absorption) is the result of having our eye on the ball and nothing else. It comes unbidden.

This is why a koan can be such a powerful tool for reaching a state of absorption. When we’re really questioning, we forget ourselves, and we forget our agenda. The practice, whether it’s a koan or the breath, is primary. Everything else is secondary.

If we get out of the way, with faith in the process, we may experience dramatic changes. I still remember the one home run I hit nearly fifty years ago in Little League baseball. Just before I swung the bat, the ball looked as big as a grapefruit. Somehow, everything else had fallen away, and there was just that ball. The danger in such ‘successes’ is that we try to replicate them. Whatever it was I did, let me do that again. We want a recipe for becoming absorbed, and so our effort becomes inauthentic as we fall back into trying to create an effect. This is why the only way forward is to let go of anything we think we’ve achieved. If it’s not this moment, how can it help?

More commonly, practice is not so dramatic. Like a frog in gradually heated water, we may not notice a shift. But friends and loved ones may. Or we may begin to notice that problems or situations that used to baffle us are no longer so difficult. In any case, our own assessment of how things are going is always suspect. Moreover, it’s not really our business and has nothing to do with paying attention.

Complete attention requires forgetting our agenda and giving up grasping. That means not wanting things to be other than they are. Since things can’t be other than they are, we avoid a lot of fruitless struggle. If we’re no longer slaves to imaginary goals, no longer trying desperately to get from here to there, we find the room to be present in this moment. And then it’s a privilege and not a burden to pay attention — to give ourselves completely to the dance.

John Pulleyn has been a member of the Zen Center since 1968, paying attention with varying degrees of success.