When was the last time you actually paid attention?
Most of us spend a lot of time in our own heads, buried in entertainment, or thinking about the future. Hippy types will tell you that it’s Western society’s fault and that Eastern religions keep you more in touch with life.
It’s true that Buddhism teaches that enlightenment can be found anywhere, at any time, all you have to do is realize it. The Zen branch, home-grown in Japan, says that you should be in the moment. Experience the world around you. See things as they are without the monkey part of your mind chattering away, commenting, analyzing, picking them apart.
But you don’t have to be into sitting in seiza and being whacked repeatedly with a cane (not that there’s anything wrong with that) to heed the Zen admonition to Be Here Now. You can simply sit and pay attention to what’s outside of you. Let go of your plans, worries, fears, and internal commentary. Just be there. In the moment. Observing. Feeling. Experiencing.
When was the last time you did that?
For me, it was just yesterday. I went down to the river to run, since there’s nowhere else around here that isn’t concreted over. It’s dark there, no streetlights or lighted signs. Almost no one goes there at night except a few weirdoes like me who want to exercise and who don’t want to run on city streets.
It was the first time in months that the sounds of people were distant. Traffic noise was a relatively faint buzz a kilometer away on the bridge. There were a few high school kids playing soccer in the near-dark. It was as peaceful as it gets in a major metropolis. I felt space around me. I realized that my state of mind was different from the way I usually felt. I was calm, connected, observing, but not actually thinking anything. I was in the moment.
I think part of the reason we try to shut out our surroundings is due to the way we live. Cities make us actively and aggressively filter stimuli down to a level we can cope with. If we didn’t, it would drive us mad. We don’t even notice that we’re doing it because we’re used to it. We think it’s normal.
But such detachment is not normal. People have only lived in cities for a few thousand years — a blink of the eye in historical terms — and it’s only in about the last 50 years that a large percentage of the population anywhere in the world has become urban dwelling.
Overstimulation is arguably one reason children are exhibiting greater tendencies toward attention deficit disorders and autism; in an industrial culture they’re functional coping mechanisms. Most people who live in big cities are plugged into an iPod so they don’t have to filter out the constant assault on their ears. They wear sunglasses or avoid eye contact so they can avoid social interaction. New Yorkers are famously brusque, probably so they can get the needed exchange of information over with and get back to keeping the world at bay. Most Japanese have mastered a state of mind that preserves a bubble of “privacy” around them even when they’re jammed into a train car asshole-to-elbow with everyone else.
When I visited Tokyo from the rural area where I used to live, I felt off-balance, dizzy, sometimes even sick to my stomach. The intersection outside Shibuya station can be overwhelming in the best of circumstances, and I often didn’t have my mental shields up. When I’m out in the woods, on the other hand, I feel centered and grounded. It’s a natural reaction to open up your senses when exposed to a lower level of stimulation.
This recent break in my routine made me realize that I’d been feeling too detached lately. It was enough to make me resolve to take a few minutes every once in a while and actually pay attention to what I was experiencing. I know that it’s not always going to be possible to get away from most of the city noises and smells, but even experiencing some unpleasant stimuli is better than filtering out the world to the point where you don’t register anything.
So, I’m going to make it a point to actively pay attention to things around me, and try not to get so deeply buried in my head that it takes a run in the dark to pull me out again.