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Attention in Speech

Practice is like cultivating a plant. We create the conditions in which our plant can grow. Whenever we notice the conditions aren’t right, we correct them.

As T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets:

                     And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition –
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

This last line is key. “The rest is not our business.” The attention that forms can not really be called “ours”. It does not belong to the web of habituated patterns that comprise our personality and much of our experience. Yet, in a deeper sense, it is truly ours: it is our human heritage. The effort of our practice, the effort that Eliot describes, is to reclaim what we have lost, to uncover what we are. For us in the grip of habitual patterns, there is only this effort. What comes of it is not up to us.

The simplicity of this principle, returning to what is already there, is deceptive. It seems so simple, but it is extremely difficult to put into practice. Often our attempts to rest with the breath feel a bit like the White Queen’s rule about jam:

“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

“Well, I don’t want any jam today, at any rate.”

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday–but never jam today.”

“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today,’ ” Alice objected.

“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day; today isn’t any other day, you know.”

Our relationship with our breath can feel a lot like that jam. Still, we make the effort, despite the difficulty and seeming fruitlessness. After a while, we realize that there is nothing to do but to make the effort.

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