A young student asked his teacher, “Please write me something of great wisdom”. His teacher picked up a calligraphy brush and wrote: “Attention”. The student asked, “Is that all?” The master then wrote: “Attention, Attention”. The student looked confused and said “that still does not seem very profound”. The teacher then wrote: “Attention, Attention, Attention”.

The student, looking exasperated asked “what does that mean”? The teacher replied “attention means attention”.

In response to this we might ask, attention to what? And my answer would be “to the moment right in front of you”. I believe that was the profound wisdom the teacher was presenting to his student.  Like the student in this story, we are all in the habit of thinking more about ideas and beliefs based on our notions and conceptions. But an idea is not the thing itself. And knowledge is not wisdom.

The wisdom of attention the teacher was pointing to is what is actually occurring here and now. In the experience of this moment we find the richness of our life which we so often take for granted, or do not see at all. Perhaps this student is looking to have his or her belief or concept about what the nature of wisdom validated. Perhaps he wants to know the future, or to be approved of, or adored so that he remains in the regions of concepts and ideas. He, like us, may feel secure in “knowing” but true wisdom unfolds at the frontier of not knowing.attention1

Being focused on an abstract notion or a “fixed” idea of what wisdom is, means being one step removed from the actual. It misses the wisdom of the moment.

One Zen teacher spoke about this practice of attention as cultivating beginner’s mind. Beginner’s mind is when we look at the moment occurring with fresh eyes and no preconceived notions, judgments or expectations.

We could replace the word “attention” with “awareness” or “choice-less looking” but whatever word we use, it is seeing as if for the first time the everyday things and relationships of our life.

We are all so oriented toward ideas based on past memories and expectations of the future we forget that in reality there is only the present. It is the only thing that exists. However we have trouble with this because like the student in our story, the moment we are experiencing is not the one we want.

We tend to make great generalizations about life but life is very detailed, specific. We may say, I love you or I hate my work but in truth we don’t always love someone and we don’t always hate our job. Life is changeable and so are we yet we all have the habit of locking on to one fixed idea about things, situations, or relationships. These generalizations and fixed ideas are based on our history and they block the moment to moment shifts in our relationships and life occurring now. This kind of position does not allow new possibilities or relationships to unfold. Instead, we find ourselves repeating old patterns of thinking and reacting.

The practice of mindful attention, however, is a practice we take into our work, home and relationships rather than another idea. It is a way of living and relating which entails allowing the moment to moment flow of experience.

We can set as an intention for ourselves, a practice of being open-hearted rather than analytical, relational rather than separate and being aware of our thoughts and feelings without judging them. Part of this practice is a willingness to let go of holding on to rigid points of view that perpetuate wanting things to be our way. With this orientation of attention, new ways of seeing and responding to our situation can emerge rather than fixed patterns based on the past.

We long for a sense of wholeness and belonging in our lives. But that wholeness has to include our head and heart as well as the “other” whether that be a job, emotion or relationship. It also needs to include a willingness to acknowledge different points of view and perspectives.

Click to try a mindfulness exercise



  1. bernice bailine

    I clicked on mindfulness exercise but did not get anything

    Good article

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