Kind Attention

The following article by Richard Witteman is from the Spring 2005 Newsletter

Sitting in this room with sunlight streaming in, there is a sense of wonder at simply being here. Earlier, walking along a path near the house, these feet touching the ground, this body moving, the sense of balance, the smell of earth, the sound of a bird — these simple movements so empty and alive.

The sense of curiosity and wonder is often so present in children; it is clearly here in their eyes, in the way they move in their bodies. As an adult, it seems more elusive, easily forgotten, buried in worry, responsibility, and identity.

In the stillness of sitting, of being with all that is here, I experience a rediscovery of the simple joy that children know so well. There is a natural clearing away of the debris, of the distractions that occupy, of the fantasies and preoccupations that so fill the mind. There is a rediscovery of what is.

In this quieting down, there is a feeling of connection, of kindness with everything, from pencils to animals to the chair I am sitting in to a dear friend. Spaciousness and attention and kindness are all here together.

This silent wonder and openness is not something I do, it’s not a state of mind, nor something willed. Awareness simply is — beyond description, beyond naming, beyond effort.

It is a real gift to have the time and space to sit quietly, to walk in nature, to let the body and mind relax into spaciousness. As I leave this quiet space and move into the busyness of everyday life, into the thousand and one things that happen, silence is here too.

In the fresh moment to moment experience of living, what words can be used to describe the rich and varied nature of what is really going on? There are many ideas and concepts about this body, about consciousness, about the nature of what I am.

But words can only hint at the broad and ever changing nature of being here. The many levels of thinking, imagining, and dreaming. The swirl of impressions, sensations, and energies coming and going. Subtle connections and intimations, barely noticed. The life of the body, the tides of emotions, the flow of blood, the harmonious cooperation of cells and organs, the intensity of illness and pain, the warm fire created by food.

Thoughts rise and fall, hints of ancestral memories, cultural attitudes, religious teachings, beliefs learned in school, childhood experiences, stories told on television and in movies. The magic theater of mind weaves all of this into its own stories and dreams, experienced in the body with flowing emotions, so convincingly real.

In kind attention, in the space of wonder and not knowing, there is room for this whole rich tapestry of everyday experience.

When parts of this flowing life are singled out and identified with, when there is an attempt to define and restrict this moment to moment experience into something controllable, then great difficulty arises.

This is where identity is born, this is the beginning of “me.”

It is an audacious undertaking, to try and control this broad river of life; to imagine that this body, this flowing intelligence and awareness, with sources and intertwining connections beyond knowing, are the responsibility and even creation of this little bit of stuff called “me.” I try, I struggle, and none of it works.

In the spaciousness of awareness, there is room for this too. Kind attention sees this illusion of a separate self for what it is, sees these struggling efforts as they take place in thought and emotion, does not identify, does not judge.

This includes the everyday world of work, relationship, and friendship, where habit and identity propel us into acting out these stories of self and other. We get into difficulties with one another, there is conflict and misunderstanding, emotions rise up, there is pain.

In spacious awareness, it is possible to wake up in the middle of these intense situations. There is space to pause, to quiet down with whatever is going on, to let go of attempts to understand, to solve, to blame, or to get away. To just breathe and be in the middle of the whole experience, allowing the relaxation and spaciousness of not knowing to be present.

It is possible for kindness to be here even in the midst of emotions, thoughts, and words that are anything but kind — emotions that are hateful or angry, when there is hurt, anxiety, fear, or all encompassing moods like guilt, worry, sorrow, or despair. Emotions that surge and cry out for action.

It is really something to experience this, to not make a move in the midst of such emotional intensity. To let go into the situation, to be here with it all, the whole movement of body and mind and emotion — to be here with the environment, with light and color and smell and sound, with the air, with the sky… with everything, just as it is, all together.

Without doing anything, the spaciousness of awareness reveals itself, it has been here all along, not seen because attention has been caught up in the smallness of the drama. The movements of mind and body are here, but the perspective is broader, and the whole situation seems transformed. Attention moves from being bound with the outcome of the drama, and opens to the joyousness of attention itself.

The mind tries to make sense of life’s contradictions, tries to understand, creates theories and personal versions of who I am and how the world works. But thought is very limited, it cannot comprehend — it makes harsh judgments, and its conclusions are often pessimistic and cynical and filled with self criticism.

It takes patience and persistence to have faith in the broad view of awareness, to begin to realize that the various states of mind are not real, are not the universal truth, and that they will pass. It can be unnerving when it is seen that really none of the mind’s conclusions are even close to being accurate.

Kind attention takes in all of this, the whole crazy mess of life, the identifications and delusions, the reactions, the hatred, the blind actions of people and of nations. Silence allows thoughts and moods to be what they are, to reveal themselves — to not fight them, to not get involved in their story, to notice their tracings, letting them dissolve. There is compassion for this body and all that it experiences.

In the patient intimacy of open presence, the vast movement of life dances and resonates. Everything is here, transparent, together… emotions, thoughts, trees, sunlight. Labels drop away, interpretations melt, the direct experience of living is so different from what the mind thinks it is.

The perception that everything is separate and in conflict, the feeling that I am an isolated observer — these convictions reveal themselves not as reality, but as movements of thought and emotion, as imagination culling out strands of the whole, calling them “me,” calling them “other.”

In the spacious freedom of kind attention, all is a unified whole, there are no divisions. Everything is transparent, together, nameless.