Tuesday, November 10, 2015
F: 4:55 a.m. All right, Papa, you were going to continue by describing living with a state of lesser focus, I think.
EH: Now here we begin to cut close to the bone. Showing which world one tends to focus on is one thing, and we have done that. But any of the three possible areas of focus may be contrasted with what I would call a lack of focus, and precisely because this is the elephant in the living room, it is the hardest to get people to see.
There is such a thing as living automatically and a contrasting thing which is living mindfully, and here is a key to my life and to the lives of everybody you will ever meet, of course including yourselves.
This too requires careful delineation. Mindfulness to some will suggest meditation, or religion, or – many things. Those are merely some of the ways it may be seen to manifest, not the thing itself. So let us keep the word “mindful” but also use an alternative word that means something not quite the same, “attentiveness.”
To be mindful means to be fully there. To be attentive means to be fully there. Both have somewhat different connotations, but this may help emphasize what they have in common. It is the property of fully participating that I am emphasizing at the moment.
But remember, being fully present need not tell you anything about what you are being fully present for, nor where you are being fully present. The monk meditating, you carefully taking this down idea by idea, the hunter waiting for the game to reveal itself, the mechanic listening with various senses for the clues that will tell him what’s wrong, the writer on the scent of the next turn in the story he is telling, all may be fully present. The scientist with his microscope, the teacher with his or her students, the stonemason building a stone fence, the mother interacting with her baby – anything you can name, in any walk of life may or may not be engaged in by being fully present. It is the quality of attention, not the things that elicit the attention nor the things the attention is expended on, that is the point here. It has nothing to do with technique except in so far as any given technique may make it easier to get there, or get there again. The problem is, habit can help you remember a state of being, yet habit alone will not necessarily bring you back to that state of being. That is why monastic routine, for example, can degenerated into empty rote performance.
F: I remember having gotten a sense once of a life as a monk in Japan or Korea or somewhere, 400 or 500 years ago, in which the monk earnestly tried to reach the goal but, because he was in a tradition that had lost the secret, or because his superiors had lost it, anyway, he got just nowhere, and at the end of his 50 years or so, died, discouraged and thinking he had wasted his only life, only to be pleasantly surprised to find that the mindful attempts in themselves were valuable, and that nothing had been lost. I don’t think I got it in terms of “mindfulness,” though. I think it presented in terms of his sincerity and perseverance.
EH: Either way, it’s a good example. The knowledge doesn’t need to come from outside oneself. In fact, it doesn’t need to be realized by the individual at all. What is more important than the content is the effort, the intent.
F: Sounds like a recipe for fanaticism, to me.
EH: It can be. But “fanaticism” is one of those words people use to slur things they dislike. The reciprocal is words like “dilettantism.” If you’re going to become the best athlete or the best anything, you’re going to be fanatical in your devotion to it. If you are going to extend yourself to many new realms of activity and interest, you are going to be a dilettante in those new fields while you’re still poking around – either that, or you will become fanatical! You see what I mean? They’re just words. They express an attitude toward something, they aren’t in themselves reliable judgments. So, yes, intensity may become fanaticism, or, alternatively, may only look fanatical to those of lesser intensity. In either case, what is described as fanaticism may or may not be good or bad – whatever “good” and “bad” mean.
So, to keep our eye on the ball. Being fully present means having your –
No. I was getting tempted into definitions, which always lead us astray. A definition is a very good thing as a starting point, but it turns toxic as soon as it becomes applied mechanically.
And, in fact, “mechanically” is what we’re talking about here; “mechanically” is the true opposite of “mindfully.”
As usual, the difficulty in saying something new is not saying it, but persuading the reader or listener that it is new, and isn’t only whatever it may suggest.
F: I know. I know from saying and I know from hearing and not understanding.
EH: All right. So try to listen with open ears and no axe to grind. At any given moment in your life, you will proceed mindfully or mechanically, or sometimes – many times – as a mixture of the two. Your attention fluctuates. That’s what attention does. That’s what consciousness is, fluctuation.
By the fact that it is universal, that should tell you that it isn’t “bad” unless you want to believe in original sin.
F: Shall we unpack that sentence? I take it to mean, if you think it is inherently bad that a situation exists, and that situation is universal, that means that life itself, or our human nature at least, is inherently flawed.
Well, isn’t that what original sin means? That your operating system has an inherent flaw in it?
F: I’m just clarifying to be sure I’m not misreading.
EH: Now, bear in mind, I didn’t say the situation of fluctuating attention is bad, I said if you believe it to be bad, you believe life itself to be flawed. I don’t have to come down on either side of that judgment – that’s for everybody to decide for themselves.
But the critical thing is to recognize that in your own life, in your day to day – moment to moment – existence, you are not uniformly present, you are not either always engaged outwardly or inwardly (that is, your focus of attention alternates), and “you” are not even necessarily the same combination of parts functioning that you are at other times.
F: Wow, all that came out white-hot – eight pages in 40 minutes, where sometimes I don’t get eight pages in an hour.
EH: It is because the process is different at different times. But that is a side-trail. Another time, if you are interested.
My life as Hemingway was one of great unrelenting intensity, first to last. What is why I couldn’t stand slack periods, and worked hard to fill them or avoid them. When I was working, I worked. But when I wasn’t working, I didn’t just cease working and go into idle; I played, as intensely as I worked, or I drank to change focus (we can talk about that sometime), or I dealt with whatever had to be dealt with in day to day business. That life had nothing to do with living automatically. It was entirely about living mindfully, intensely.
F: Thus your connection to Teddy Roosevelt.
EH: Of course. He talked about “the strenuous life,” and that spoke to me. If you will re-examine everything in your life by sorting it into two piles, automatic or mindful, you will wind up sorting things differently than you ever have before. Anything – name it – will sort out differently. If you look at politics, say, or–
Well, again being tempted into too broad statements, so let’s stay with what we said.
People living their lives more or less automatically are not wasting their lives, though I would have thought so, but they aren’t doing what I did either. It is the difference between the audience and the performer in that one particular sense of the relationship.
F: I think you are meaning, they may have their own focus in life, whatever it may be, but in connection with you, they are the audience.
EH: Maybe say “considered from” instead of “connection with,” but yes, that is what I mean. Those people who live mindfully have a terrific attraction to those who don’t. [That is, they are powerful attractors.] This can be for better or worse, but it [the attraction] will be there. It doesn’t have much to do with what these people do, or think or suggest. It shines through them, and people respond.
And that’s enough for the moment.
F: Nice session. Our next theme?
EH: I guess we’ll just have to see, won’t we?
F: Okay. Till then. (5:50 a.m.)
Tuesday, November 10, 2015