Gurdjieff International Review

Dimensions of Attention

Paul Reynard

O, but they say the tongues of dying men

Enforce attention like deep harmony:

Where words are scarce, they are seldom spent in vain,

For they breathe truth that breathe their words in pain.

Shakespeare / Richard II

Winter, in Monsey. I am at my desk, watching through the window the trees on the other side of the lawn. Except for a few evergreens, the forest is but the gathering of bare trunks. The landscape is still, an invitation to silence myself within, even though in a far corner of my untamed mind, words are unable to cease babbling; they are like the leaves of the bamboo grove in front of the forest that never stop chatting with each other. I feel an unusual but direct relationship with Nature and its vastness. This feeling triggers the memory of a similar impression I had when I was eight. Every year at Easter time, my big brother and I would go to the country house of our grandmother for the school holidays. The bus stop was about a mile from our final destination. In the cold early morning we walked uphill on a dirt lane. Around us nature was just waking from its winter sleep and nobody was working yet in the fields. In contrast to the crowded city we had just left, we found ourselves in a world of silence animated only by the whisper of the wind in the bushes, the cooing of a dove announcing the spring, and the barking of a dog far away.

Penetrated by the scent of wet soil mixed with the smell of manure and rotting hay, a sensation that remains extremely vivid in me even today, I enjoyed a peculiar alertness, as if a new life was pervading the whole of myself. Instead of the isolation and loneliness of my daily life as a little boy in a big city, I felt a deep bond with the earth, the trees, the animals, I had the strong impression of being rooted in the ground as well as within myself.

Now, in front of me, the subtle shiver of twigs moves up to the top of the trees. All of a sudden, squalls shake the branches, and then again, abruptly, there is a lull; everything around is imperceptibly breathing, almost whispering, at rest.

For a while I am fascinated, not just taken by what I see, but rooted in a kind of contemplation that includes both the forest and myself, the invisible force of the wind in the trees and the mysterious action of my own breath, as if both were flowing from the same source. I am not doing anything, I am not attracted to anything in particular—the mind is silent—but nevertheless I feel engaged in a very specific action: I am attending without expectation. I am attending both myself and the world outside. After a while, however, the mind can no longer stand being mute, the state fades away as words again take possession of my mind.

“The head is a crowded rag market”, said Theophan the Recluse. “Whilst you are still in your head, thoughts will not easily be subdued but will always be whirling about, like snow in winter or clouds of mosquitoes in the summer.”1

I need to acknowledge that labeling things does not necessarily bring understanding. At the same time I cannot deny that almost everything I know or believe I know has been learned through words. Each time I find myself confronted with a consuming question, I need words to ponder about it, and then even more words to come to the resolution of a thought. But by experience I know that my faculty of attention on that level has no strength, it does not last, and finally, taken by the flow of associations, I find myself drowning in ceaseless inner talking.

What is attention? Where does it come from? It seems that everybody knows what is meant by the word ‘attention,’ since in one way or another, attention is constantly called upon in our daily life. But trying to find a rational definition of this word is as hopeless as explaining a koan, and the only way to understand it, I believe, will come not from expounding, but from staying in front of the question...

[The complete text is available in the printed copy of this issue.]

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Copyright © 2013 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2013 Issue, Vol. XII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2013


1 Philokalia. London: Faber & Faber, 1992.