Attention in Speech

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Poor Alice! A seemingly insignificant transposition of words and her three companions at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party can’t correct her fast enough.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, I find the same confusion arising over and over again in meditation practice and efforts at attention in our lives.

We need to make a distinction between what effort we make and what comes out of that effort. For instance, when we make an effort to return to the breath and we make that effort over and over again, something comes of that effort. What is that something? It’s an increasing ability to rest in attention, to rest aware of what is going on outside and inside of us, without our being distracted by sights, sounds or other external sensations, or by thoughts, feelings, and other internal experiences. To join in the verbal antics of our friends from Alice in Wonderland, “I breathe to cultivate attention” which, of course, is quite different from “I cultivate attention to breathe.” (The latter would be an extremely problematic state of affairs. None of us would be alive for long.)

Most people, after a fair amount of trial and error, find how to rest with the breath and gradually become aware of the growth of attention in themselves. What we learn is that, apart from the effort to come back to the breath, there is nothing that we can do to cultivate attention and develop mindfulness. The process of developing attention consists of one single principle: returning to attention whenever we notice we are distracted.

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