5 ways to pay attention

Pay attention — to yourself

let go
Clinging, and the end of clinging…

Last week, I continued our series on the 4 Descriptors of How Life Is by discussing Sound Conduct.

I wrote:

Under the Sound Conduct category are 4 areas of concern.

This list became the basis for multitudes of rules and regulations for the discipline of monastic life. One of the nice things about Zen, and probably why I like it so much, is that the trappings and long lists are eliminated, and our preset topic could be reduced to one rule: “act consciously.”

Today’s category helps us with the “nitty gritty” of the other descriptors

You might think of what you’ve read in the other 2 category articles as leading to or finding their fulfillment in Attentiveness. Its’ sort of like once you begin to understand how the world truly works (Understanding), AND once you begin to refine your Conduct in terms of this Understanding, you reach a level of maturity that culminates in a “simple” way of being (Attentiveness.)

As you might suspect, this requires a whole hearted (and whole headed) focus on seeing what is, as opposed to what we wish was going on.

This does not happen a lot, for most.

Sound Awareness

I’m writing this on June 10, some hours before the 2nd of our series of free webinars. I’m going to be discussing “noticing and accepting”, the first 2 concepts in the acronym NAIL (Notice, Accept, Investigate, and Let Go) Seems appropriate, as “noticing and accepting” is what Sound Awareness is all about.

Sound Awareness requires a single-minded focus on “just this.”

Prior to implementing Sound Understanding and Sound Conduct, our mental lives are non-present and non-responsible. We only begin to discover this if we bring our attention directly to our mind games, despite the “slippery wishes” of the mind. (slippery mind)


I’m so together, so clever, and such a Saint. Now do it my way!

For example, many of my clients have worked on overcoming their blaming behaviours. They do this by first beginning to notice that they are angry or sad, and how they immediately and automatically blame the nearest person. So, they let go of the language. They may even say, “I am angering myself.”

But then, they’ll come up with, “If only I had married someone who was more centred and Zen-like. Then, my tranquillity wouldn’t be disturbed.” Same thing (blaming) but stated in an artificially more self responsible way.


Approach # 1: It’s always, always about you

There is no escaping this reality. In the 4 Areas where we can bring attention, (mind, feeling, body, and phenomena) the workings of all are determined by how we choose to see them. It is my responsibility to bring bare attention or bare noticing to each of the 4.

Slippery mind will get more and more clever, but all it ever says is, “Well, it may just be me messing with myself, but THIS time…”

Awareness requires that we look, with clear eyes, at our perception of the 4 areas.

  • Immaturity is this: “This is happening (say, to my body) and it is bad, painful, wrong.”
  • Maturity is this: “This is what is happening to my body.” One client nailed it this week. I asked her how she was, and she replied, “Things in general are what they are. How was that for a reply?” She then indicated some stuff that was going on in her relationships, body, and with her communication. All data, no “this is bad,” or “I’m disturbing myself over…”

What’s going on for you is what is going on for you. Watch. Notice.

seeing self in mirror

Approach # 2: You know nothing about anything outside of you

This is the realm of phenomena from the 4 Areas. This is rejected strongly by our slippery mind. We cling to the belief that we know what’s up for others, and understand the workings of the world. I find this quite odd, as most people I meet are woefully ignorant of their own internal theatre, and struggle mightily against shifting much at all of their view. But boy, do they know what’s up for others!

Here’s a hint: you know nothing about anything!

Sound Awareness teaches us the art of simply noticing what’s going on. I call this bare awareness, or awareness stripped of judgement and interpretation.

I was asked the following question during the first webinar call:

In respect to good and bad, or the fact that it doesn’t exist, that all is neutral, it is a challenge. If I do not use judgement for things, would there not be chaos? I do not leave a 5 year old to look after themselves all day because my judgement tells me that would not be wise. If there is no good and bad, what about teaching our children values?”

I would ask, “What good does adding an additional layer do?

If I observe myself gently, I seen see that I “know” how I wish to deal with any phenomenon. Adding a layer of judgement just delays things.

We do not teach children values.
Wise people live their values, and children notice.

I saw this last weekend. A friend’s son (9 years old or so) had cut a baseball apart (boy, did that bring back memories) and had wrapped the considerable internal yarn around his hand. The yarn was attached still to the rubber core. He asked his mom for a scissors.

She immediately leapt to the assumption that his hand was trapped in the yarn, and that he wanted out. She got right into, “We gotta get you out of there!” mode. I took out my knife, and opened it. He walked over to me, and sliced the yarn, freeing the rubber ball. The mom was like, “Oh!…”

caricature wayne

Approach # 3: Be curious

This would be the elegant approach to the last story. When in doubt, (which, really, is all the time) ask. When you want something, ask.

Sound Awareness is a dialogue between you and you, and you and the universe. As you begin to drop the “know-it-all” stance, it becomes clear that it’s all pretty vague and unclear out there. And inside, too.

One of my clients tells me that she really wants to shift her life. Yet, in three years, all I hear from her is what she knows, which is that everyone is terrible, and her life is over at 31. Never once has she approached our work as a puzzle to play with.

I recognize that every learning in my life has come right after admitting I had no clue. My therapist used to say, “Practice not knowing,” and curiosity as opposed to stubbornness was the key to the door.

Curiosity, in a sense, is a bit like childlike wonder. I loved the look on the kid’s face as he wrapped yarn around his hand and bounced the inside of the baseball around. This was his very first experience with the guts of a ball, and I twigged back to when I’d done the same thing. I told him about some of my experiences, and wished him well with the exploration.

Curiosity allows me to deeply engage with the phenomena I am viewing. The Buddha used the term samadhi to describe this laser-like focus on what is “right there.” He indicted that such attention leads to delight and ease born of detached curiosity.


Approach # 4: detach

Detachment is not the same as not caring. Detachment is about dropping clinging. To what, you ask?

See above! It’s dropping our attachment to our stories, our judgements, our blaming, and to our mind games. Once I have detached myself from them, and also from attaching to a particular outcome, I can be fully and completely present with this moment.

This is not the same as not caring. It’s not walking around in a calm, preternatural fog. It’s paired with “delight,” remember. It’s all about complete, vital presence as one enacts and interacts with life.

Sound Awareness requires laser-like presence, without clinging to anything. This is difficult, as most people are deeply attached to their pain and drama, and also deeply attached to the idea that the cosmos should cooperate in a “make me happy project.”

Silly people want the world and others to give a shit,
and are deeply annoyed that it and others don’t.

So, detach. Let It Be, to quote a Beatles album. It is as it is, until it isn’t.

This is also not to say that goals, projects, desires have no place. Remember, the real cause of suffering is clinging, not desire per se. The way this plays out is to do whatever you do with full attention and full involvement, while detaching from a specific outcome (the clinging part.)

Sound Concentration

Approach #5: Sound Concentration

The word the Buddha used is dhyana, which is the precursor to the word Zen. And the essence of Zen is shikantaza, a term coined by Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen.

The word shikantaza translates, ““nothing but (shikan) precisely (ta) sitting (za).”

burmese posture

Sound Concentration is what happens when we are able to simply be present, moment-by-moment, with what is, and what arises. It happens as we learn to sit with ourselves and let go of the clinging and the games.

As I’ve said before, the way to strengthen presence is to practice shikantaza. Resources are here, including a video.

For the next few weeks, I’ll be introducing my new book, which just arrived from the printer’s. I’m holding off on linking to it until the Amazon links are ready and working. Stay tuned!

Make Contact!

So, how does this week’s article sit with you? What questions do you have? Leave a comment or question!

About the Author: Wayne C. Allen is the web\‘s Simple Zen Guy. Wayne was a Private Practice Counsellor in Ontario until June of 2013. Wayne is the author of five books, the latest being The. Best. Relationship. Ever. See: –The Phoenix Centre Press

2 thoughts on “5 ways to pay attention”

  1. This article was great and I am really enjoying this Zen experience and look forward to your articles however there is one thing that I just can’t seem to grasp and need some help in clarifying it and just putting into perspective. Basically I’m wondering about emotions or preferences. Is it ok to not care for a particular individual or want to be around people that you find unpleasant? Or are we supposed to like everyone and be happy go lucky? And is it a judgement to not want to be around people who are always getting into trouble?

    Thanks for you words of wisdom,


    • Hi Yvette,
      Maybe I will tackle these questions in the next article…
      Briefly, as an example, I don’t eat bananas. Well, I do occasionally, if they are in fruit salad. Mostly, though, I avoid them. So, that would be choosing to avoid something I do not like.
      Now, I would be off track it I took it further… “Boy, I hate bananas! They’re disgusting and smell, and they give people banana breath! No one should ever eat bananas!”
      Now, I COULD think all of that, but I would then be lost in judgements and thought, and I have actually added nothing to the fact that I do not like bananas.
      The game is best played by knowing my likes and dislikes, being adventuresome when I am uncertain, and working diligently to drop the add-on judgements.
      Yup. I think I’ll write about this… thanks!


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