This is the text of a presentation given 10.7.2010 at the Institute of Oriental Philosophy, Taplow Manor.

Clearing the Ground.

This talk will consider paying attention to attention as the prerequisite for creative awakening.  It will present an exploration in words and experience of our attention in support of a journey through presence, receptivity, openness, curiosity and cultivation towards creativity.


My theme for opening this daylong exploration of Creative Awakening is Attention.

Why attention?  Many answers: the ethical - the unexamined life being life unworthy, the experiential, inattentive life being life unlived; the scientific – the importance of attention as shown by contemporary neuroscience; and the psychotherapeutic, the importance of attention both to note our joys and to acknowledge our sorrows, in the understanding that without acknowledgement of our emotions they, and the energy they tie up, will come to haunt us.  Here today we have been asked to think about creativity, and surely there can be no creativity without attention.  Attention - to focus our minds, clear our minds, open our minds, train our minds, all to provide the space within which the novelty of creativity may arise and be received – clearing the ground.

Considering processes of attention rather than the content or objects of attention is actually fairly uncommon in our culture.  We are more used to focusing on information and activity, ends rather than means.  This perhaps, is the greatest difference and the greatest benefit of studying Buddhism; the focus on process and the use of attention to reveal the construction of our worlds and our selves.  Rare voices in Western culture have pointed to this:  William James at the end of the nineteenth century:

The faculty of voluntarily bringing back a wandering attention over and over again is the very root of judgement, character and will.  No one is compos sui if he have it not.  An education which should improve this faculty would be the education par excellence.

So I would like to start with attention, and ask us now to stop and be, notice what is around, take in our surroundings and be PRESENT:  First let us bring ourselves here – let go of whatever happened on our way – or yesterday – or whenever.  When we are here, I would ask you to place your attention to your ears - listen to the here and now.

3.33 meditation.

That was one minute shorter than a famous or infamous piece of music presented by John Cage in 1962.  Needless to say it shocked its audience; I think it was meant to shock open their ears to the sound around them.  Shock them into presence.  Amusingly or terrifyingly, Cage’s piece now notorious is for 4.333’ ; one presenter was threatened with copyright litigation for reconstructing the piece,  so I made sure that our experiment was of a different length.

As demonstrated by Cage, artists have long known the significance of attention. Here is a quotation from an American writer William Least Heat Moon from the preable to his book Blue Highways about journeying through the backroads of the United States.  I think within this quotation are almost all the points about attention with which I am concerned

“Sitting full in the moment I practised on the god-awful difficulty of just paying attention.  It’s a contention of Heat Moon’s – believing as he does, any traveller who misses the journey misses about all he’s going to get – that a man becomes his attentions.  His observations and curiosity, they make and remake him.

Etymology: curious, related to cure, once meant ‘carefully observant’.  Maybe a tonic of curiosity would counter my numbing sense that life inevitably creeps toward the absurd.  Absurd, by the way, derives from a Latin word meaning ‘deaf, dulled.’  Maybe the road could provide a therapy through observation of the ordinary and obvious, a means whereby the outer eye opens an inner one.  STOP, LOOK, LISTEN, the old railroad crossing signs warned.  Whitman calls it ‘the profound lesson of reception.”

Here attention and its transformative potential are allied to another premise, reception.  Along with attention we need the ability to listen, the willingness to open to our experience, free from preconception, expectation and all the other lenses through which we habitually see the world.  This is made easier if we have that other factor mentioned here – curiosity.  Curiosity will keep us open – open and engaged – without prejudice.  For the value of attention is strengthened if it is accompanied by an open mind – a mind without preconceptions.  What are those preconceptions?  Pre-eminently judgement or emotional bias.  Judgements and emotional biases form PRE- conceptions; something that comes before open apperception, something that causes us to interpret what we come across not freshly and in its own terms but in accordance with our expectation, with the emotions left over from earlier experience.  Of course this may be helpful, but we should know that it might also be unhelpful forming a barrier between our experience and ourselves, forcing us to live within the confines of an earlier script, one that may not be appropriate NOW, in this very moment.

But how to keep that openness?  How to make things new?  In circular fashion, this is the task of trained attention – to keep open the freshness.  When we travel to unknown places, or find ourselves amongst unknown people, there is often that feeling of release, of excitement, of possibility – the third factor, the curiosity of which Least Heat Moon writes. For we have to bring something to what we meet.  Our path is not just laid down before us; we bring it into being even as we walk it, by the manner in which we walk it.  And here is the fourth factor that I will be returning to – the place of attention in creating our selves; the way we become our attentions.  Creativity and imagination are our donations. It is interesting that the very word used in Sanskrit for meditation or awareness practice, bhavana, comes from the root meaning being.  It denotes bringing into being and cultivating. Rather than following the path, we create our path in every moment by bringing to it our attention, imagination, and without doubt creativity. Least heat Moon seeks in journey, in new pastures, to forge a fresh path, travelling west in the imagination.

Yet it need not always demand this kind of novelty. The novelty may be in the looking not in the object.   This is making the ordinary extraordinary.  Wendell Berry, a farmer, writes of the purified attention that finds newness even in the entirely familiar, whereby the very intimacy with our surroundings, held with imagination and love, reveals the underlying contingency.   He says “To know imaginatively is to know intimately, particularly, precisely, gratefully, reverently, and with affection.” And speaking of such loved and attentively known places he writes:

“’it’ is always, and not predictably, changing.  It is never the same two days running, and the better one pays attention the more aware one becomes of these differences.  Living and working in the place day by day, one is continuously revising one’s knowledge of it, continuously being surprised by and in error about it.  And even if the place stayed the same, one would be getting older and growing in memory and experience, and would need for that reason alone to work from revision to revision.”

Revision – re –vision.

For years Cezanne painted the Mont St. Victoire, never once the same. 

Another writer Roger Deakin, who wrote wonderfully of wild places, wild swimming and wild woods, was described by a colleague Robert MacFarlane as “an explorer of the undiscovered country of the nearby” It is the attention of care that reveals the familiar as vivid as the new, just as McFarlane himself discovered.  A account of his journeys to find the wild places left in the British Isles ends: “Wildness was here, too, a short mile south of the town in which I lived.”

I remember also a rather strange film Smoke directed by Wayne Wang, a wonderful small-scale movie centred on the stories of the characters inhabiting a small block in New York.  The central character played by Harvey Keitel, was the owner of a tobacconist store on a corner who went out each morning at the same time – 8am? – and took a photograph of the same scene.  Of course it was different every day.  I remember thinking of doing the same thing myself, many years before I saw this film.  My viewpoint was just after coming up a hill out of the village where I live, where suddenly you see Dartmoor spreading out in the far distance.  I wanted to trace this picture through a year, the seasons, the light, the weather and so on.  Wang’s pictures were urban, of the people and their stories that inhabited the space.

The limits of knowledge of a place, Berry suggests, are not in that place, but in our minds.  And it is in the practice of our minds, the practice of awareness that we can struggle to better ourselves and foster creativity.  At the heart of Buddhist teachings are practices in attention, practices that encourage us to see what is there, and to know it as contingent, impermanent and unique, part of an ever-changing kaleidoscope of which we too are but an element.  As Gary Snyder wrote in a letter to Alan Ginsberg; “ Everyday living IS the enlightenment and the insight.”

I would encourage you to revisit familiar places with an attention that is present, open and curious, as if for the first time.


Buddhist practice is centred on the training of attention. In one of the earliest texts, the Buddha encourages the practices of mind training:

The farmer channels water to his land.

The fletcher whittles his arrows.

And the carpenter turns his wood.

So the wise man directs his mind.

Training our minds may be the central human task. Unfortunately in today’s culture this mostly takes the path of filling them with content rather than paying attention to attention. Contemporary neuroscience is now continuously underlining the importance of attention in the development of our brains.   Neurons that fire together, wire together. (Donald Jebb).  We are literally creatures of habit. Thus it behoves us to choose carefully the habits we espouse.  Neuroplasticity the name for this forging of tracks in the brain, the ability throughout our lives to lay down new pathways, change default modes, is facilitated when the mechanisms of attention are in play. It has also been discovered recently that mechanisms of attention are central to both cognitive and emotional functioning and that training in compassion and emotional regulation is dependent on the same attentional mechanisms that occur in the practice of meditation.

Back to the first psychology of the Buddha.  The first noble truth or noble task is that we should know fully suffering.  We habitually avoid the physical facts of suffering, old age being one.  The task is to learn to be with our condition without distraction: to learn to sit still, and stabilise our attention in order to take a long, intimate and careful look at what is happening with body, emotions and mind.  This is something that our society avoids and advises us to avoid while ceaselessly providing distractions.  I remember years ago standing on the tube platform in wintry London day after day, facing a vast picture of a beach somewhere exhorting me to consider that “would you not rather be somewhere else?”  Anything rather than, in the title of a popular 60s book, Be Here Now.  But by opening up to our individual condition – impermanence and death, the certainty of death, the uncertainty of its time, the felt sense of our mortality, may wake us up to what it means to be alive.  Nirvana is the cessation of clinging, grasping onto this or that or the other as source of our wellbeing.  Letting go of this leads to an openness; is the first step, right thought on the eightfold path.  Awakening is the moment when the habitual chatter of the mind begins to fade and we can see that we can live free from compulsions – and this is the end of the eightfold path.

So the end is a way of life – an eightfold path that embraces a new way of living – not transcendent or unworldly.  The Buddha attends to basic embodied experience and exhorts us to wake up to life as it is – and how it may be – free of greed, hatred and fear.  Little moments of insight, short-lived, leading hopefully to a longer more grounded shift, which leads to an altered life – to an openness of self that can then extend outwards to others, to com - passion, the feeling-with, once the grasping of self is let go.  The unconditioned, rather than pointing to some nirvana beyond life, some absolute or alternate reality, is absence of greed, hatred, and delusion, i.e. it refers to an altered way of living, that is unconditioned.  Most religions want to provide answers; Buddhism encourages us to continue asking questions.

There is a strong message in Buddha’s teaching about action.  It is what you do, how you live your life rather than belief or ritual, that leads to freedom.  There is also a strong concern for freedom within this life rather than freedom from life.  As a psychotherapist I can see that the four truths and the eightfold path, with its concern for morality, wisdom and mind training, is a fine prescription for wellbeing.  In particular, the practice of mind training is there to clear the mind of the obscurations, the predispositions of greed, grasping, aversion, fear and even hope that cloud our perception, All the poisons that separate us from wellbeing can be overcome if they are acknowledged, paid attention, and let go.  Exactly what happens in a good psychotherapy session.  I truly believe that it is not the clever interpretations of the therapist that heal, rather the opportunity, in a safe and supportive space, to pay attention to and give voice to the unheard, the almost unthought, that which frightens us, and which when ignored works below the surface to spoil our happiness.  The process usually begins with embodiment or feeling prior to recognition or speech.  Putting these feelings and felt senses into words, with this narrative joining them to the light of conscious articulation, removes their charge and allows the energy to flow between conscious and unconscious, and our lives to move forward unobstructed into the future. There has recently been some research concerning those who had experienced trauma that showed that those who had articulated their experience, even to themselves in diary form, revealed far higher levels of psychological and physical health in subsequent tests.  It seems that the very act of telling the story, articulating the emotions, organising the events, sets up connections between different areas of the brain, has a beneficial effect.  But before we can do this, can narrate the story, we have to pay attention to those emotions and their traces.

Attention and Self

What we attend to shapes who we become. The continual ebb and flow of attention out, emotion within, and action in the world sculpts our very brains, forming us into the people we are, the selves with which we identify.  Again neuroplasticity, the ability of neuronal processes to be formed and transformed by our attention, shows this to be true.  Our experience is a two-way process, our experience depends on our wired brain, but the wiring of that brain has been tuned by earlier experience. “Your attention is like a spotlight, and what it illuminates flows into your mind, sculpting your brain.”

Buddhism teaches us that we are truly not separate from our world. We are enworlded. Our attempts to understand our selves as separate, in control, and permanent, are doomed.  To give up such beliefs is a step on the road to freedom.  Nor need it be frightening.  As writer Terry Tempest Willliams wrote after seeing a picture of earthrise taken from the moon:

If in fact we are in free fall, we can relax, because we also know there is no ground, so no need for a parachute. If we are a part of the whole, what more do we want?”

We have a parachute, or rather; we are a part of a parachute – the net of Indra, the immense web of life.

It is the practice of attention that can reveal this to us. It is through close attention to our embodiment and our enworldedness that we notice the bias of our emotions and the constructions of our selves. And it is through the cultivation and education of attention that we may transform our emotions and our selves.

Again it is a writer, Mark Doty, poet and essayist, who for me expresses this most clearly.

“Is that what soul or spirit is, then; the outward-flying attention, the gaze that bind us to the world?”

‘“I,” as the quickest, subtlest thing we are: a moment of attention, an intimate engagement.”

“Here and gone.  That’s what it is to be human, I think – to be both someone and no one at once, to hold to a particular identity in the world (our names, our place of origins, our family and affectional ties) and to feel that solid set of ties also capable of dissolution, slipping away, as we become moments of attention.”

All these quotations come from a wonderful little book which takes its being from contemplation of Dutch still life painting in general, and one picture named in the title, Still Life With Oysters and Lemons, in particular.  The entire book is a meditation on attention. Through the lens of painting, a particular form of attention, Doty explores the relation between attention and self.

“Someone and no one.  That, I think is the deepest secret of these paintings, finally, although it seems just barely in the realm of the sayable, this feeling that beneath the attachment and appurtenances, the furnishing of selfhood, what we are is attention, a quick physical presence in the world, a bright point of consciousness in a wide field from which we are not really separate. “

Another poet who utterly understands this relation between world and attention is Rilke. He also understands this as our duty to world.

Everywhere transience is plunging into the depths of Being… It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply, so painfully and passionately, that its essence can rise again, “invisibly”, inside us. We are the bees of the invisible. We wildly collect the honey of the visible, to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.

“Are we.perhaps, just here for saying: House

Bridge, Fountain, Gate, Jug, Olive tree, Window, -

Possibly: Pillar, Tower? . . .  but for saying, remember,

Oh for such saying as never the things themselves

Hoped so intensely to be.”

So we have presence, receptivity, non-judgemental openness, and curiosity and cultivation; training the mind to attend to all of these –to the process of attention itself.  Out of the depths of this openness, new connections may arise – we may see the familiar in a fresh manner – creativity.  I read an article on recent research on creativity the other day, the researcher exploring the neural basis of insight said “Creativity is a complex concept: it is not a single thing” and he defined it as the ability to restructure one’s understanding of a situation in an unobvious way.  The researchers also suggest that creativity prefers to take a slower more meandering path than intelligence; that in the part of the brain related to creativity, there appears to be little side roads with interesting detours and meandering byways.

Let’s take some time on a side road and just spend a couple of minutes now attending to whatever arises.  The great thing about meditation is that there is nothing to achieve, like attending to the process rather than the product this is simple, but difficult because it goes against everything we are taught in school.  There is nothing to achieve; no good meditation nor bad.  If the mind is distracted then our meditation is to notice the distraction.  The difference from just being distracted is that we don’t follow the distraction – don’t become the distraction – we see the distraction against a bigger background, of time and space and mind.  This enormous resource is there for us at every moment when it is safe or wise to disconnect from our task and acknowledge the huge space of mind beyond.


4 mins