Saturday, 30 March 2013

When 'It' Becomes 'You': Deep Attention

Living in a rural area means meeting animals. Particularly in the winter, when we put food out for the birds, the sense of sharing a challenging environment and the common need for food and shelter become apparent. Of course there are preferences: the grey squirrel is regarded as a pest because it forces out the red squirrel – and chews its way through the roofs of our kutis in order to nest in the insulation. And when food goes out for the birds, the squirrels turn up and grab it all.  They are cute, agile, voracious and cunning.  Like most sentient beings. The magpies bully the thrushes, the robins fight each other.  Local cats move in and prey on the young rabbits.  Us humans defend our waste food from rats and our roof space from squirrels; and we feed the birds. What we all do is stay alive and maintain ourselves within a shared environment; clashing when need be and being gracious when we can.  We’re real creatures, not cartoon figures.

At least some of us are. Because the human world, and the human mind, are also densely populated with abstractions. Our minds carry impressions of others – some of whom are the characters we see on the screens or read about. There’s Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse and their descendants; along with actors and rock stars and the characters in the soap operas whose antics millions will devotedly watch twice a week for a decade. If the fictional character ‘dies’ or is written out of the series, people send condolences and want to go to the funeral. These fictional beings become larger than life role models, icons of the cool and the successful. They form and lead the culture – so the mind-set of the society gets established around fashion models and movie stars.  Even stranger: these beings only exist in an abstract, iconic way. We don’t rub up against them (except when in carefully monitored off-stage walkabouts, or by chance when they’re out of role) and they are ‘he/she/it’ rather than ‘you’.

The ‘it’ relationship is the dominant mode for information and data: science, economics and their technologies work in terms of ‘it.’ In these the aim is clear object-definition and data that are verifiable and understandable by any number of observers. ‘It’ lives at the end of the microscope, on the screen, spreadsheet or graph. I am removed from it and observe it and investigate and experiment on it, secure in the knowledge that it will not do the same to me. It will not talk to me, or if it does, I will note that, but not feel any need to reply or be affected by it.  The abstract ‘it’ relationship is the one of the physical sciences, and through their knowledge we can arrange the phenomenal world to suit us better.

So ‘it’ is one way of measuring and knowing, a way that offers clear object-definition.  But how accurate is it? Perhaps you’re aware of the incident when David Attenborough, the great British naturalist, put down his observation role and met a group of gorillas on their own terms. As an observer, his perception of the gorillas was marked by fear and mistrust: these were wild, powerful creatures. His comment was: ‘If you suddenly appeared close to them and took them by surprise, then they would almost certainly charge.’ ('Gorilla' = savage, beating chest, bared fangs – King Kong is the figure who represents gorillas) But to his credit, David relaxed in their presence, and ended up lying alongside a huge male silverback, being cuddled by members of the group as two young infants inquisitively attempted to remove his shoes. For him it was a life-changing moment.  What you see depends not just on it, but on how you attend.

On the other hand there’s the tragic story of a couple who took their young child to the zoo to see the bears (Bears =  cuddly, teddy bear, Pooh Bear). Smearing honey on their child’s hand (to have the bear lick it off, like in the cartoons), they poked the little one’s mitt through the bars to where the bear was – who, naturally enough, bit off the hand.

So correct relationship between sentients depends on appropriate signalling. ‘This is food for you’,‘This is my territory’, or ‘I’m looking for a mate.’ If Attenborough had charged into the troop of gorillas waving his arms, baring his teeth and screaming, the reception would probably have been very different. And that’s the salient feature and growth point of the ‘you’ relationship: you have to wake up, and check where you’re at with regard to the other. This is not always so clear with humans, because of the effect of our projections. I may not give you an accurate signal of where I’m at, because being clear and direct might be offensive, or make me look needy, pushy or otherwise ‘not right.’ I may see you as someone who has power, or is higher or lower or the same as me – so that affects how I signal and what boundaries I create. In that uncertainty, and because most of the people we move past in a day we don’t contact (and then we watch others on a screen at night), the ‘it’ relationship migrates into the sentient human world.  It’s easier that way. But the rule is that the lesser the degree of empathy, the greater the possibility the relationship holds for fantasy, fear, adoration and other projections.

As with screen-violence and pornography. The thrill perhaps with porn is that the participants are involved in highly intimate and emotionally stirring activity while relating to each other not as in-depth humans but as objects; and witnessed by another uninvolved party. What you see (or imagine) is all there is – it’s all surface and no depth. Actually, within boundaries, any public performers take on the character of an ‘it’; at the roots of performing arts lies the understanding that through such presentation, people can experience emotions that wouldn’t be accessible in their ordinary lives.  Taboo energies such as violence can thereby be exorcized. But this always has to be done in a safe place, one clearly set apart from social life. Then when you leave it, you leave behind what it brought up in you. In Greek theatre, the place of performance was sacred and the actors were unnamed – clearly representations, not themselves. Even then the gory stuff was relayed, but not portrayed. There was an understanding that witnessing some acts (sex and violence) sends a charge to the autonomous nervous system that bypasses the reasoning and the empathic intelligence. The witness gets overwhelmed and loses moral awareness – and there is a giddy delight in that. So such acts are therefore to be held as (in Latin) ‘ob scena’ – obscene, literally ‘off-stage’. If we open to the obscene, we are at risk: pornography and violence etch their signals into consciousness and become addictive.

So how much TV, and what novels should you read? To the Buddha, the mediation between fearful censorship and carelessness is up to each individual’s ‘deep attention’ (yoniso manasikāra). This attention – that literally ‘goes to the source’ – doesn’t support the myth of objectivity. Rather than adopting the premise of a self that exists independent of what it contacts, deep attention acknowledges that our mind is always affected. And the affects of fear or gratitude or aversion and so on tend to be retained as impressions that we carry around like photographs. So the human responsibility is to cultivate awareness of how the mind is affected by the immediate effect, or by the mental ‘photograph’.

What are the things unfit for attention that he does not attend to? They are things such that when he attends to them, the unarisen taint of sensual desire arises … and the arisen taint of ignorance increases …’ [and vice versa] M2.10

This is not a matter of criticising one’s confused or negative mind states. Deep attention creates a sacred space of non-judgement, but the boundary is restraint – you don’t act out the states. Then deep attention can investigate and dismantle unskilful ones:

...There are, bhikkhus, wholesome and unwholesome states, blameable and blameless states, inferior and superior states, dark and bright states with their counterparts:  frequently giving deep attention to them nourishes  the arising of ... and  fulfils  by developing, the enlightenment factor of investigation of states. S 46.51

Deep attention then witnesses in line with cause and effect: what attracts and interests me, and how this affects me. We can retain and dwell upon uplifting impressions of other people’s kindness; or we can look into the patterns of fear, aversion or addictive greed. Most significantly, through maintaining the boundary between these states and our actions, we can exorcize our demons. If the attention is wise and deep it isn’t mesmerized by the object, it sees the figures of threat or hate not as people, but as phenomena that have to be related to but not fixated on. They’re really just echoes and representations. And with calm, clarity and empathy, we can learn from them and let them go.

However when there is careless, superficial attention, the demons stay with us and we assume that their messages of who we are/he is and what we/he should be are about real people. This is because when attention sees things as ‘it’, the difference between fantasy images and responsive reality get blurred. ‘It’ doesn’t support the kind of response that’s appropriate for sentiency. ‘It’ is a topic for fixation and feeding on, not for relating to.  As in the realm of non-stop media and glowing screens, where fiction and reality TV is interleaved with news and commercials: you observe, but you can’t respond. And when there’s news from war-zones following on from a violent movie, does the mind/heart really know that these are different realities?  When you get used to seeing impressive characters blasting people away with their high-tech weapons, doesn’t a percentage of humanity get attracted to doing just that? Is real, responsible life getting replaced by theatre?

You may recall the Stanley Milgram experiments of the 1960s, experiments that included two actors – one acting as the supervisor of the experiment (wearing a white coat), and one who was pretending to be a learner whose learning would be accelerated by being given electric shocks, in increasingly high voltage, every time he made a mistake. The third person, who was the real subject of the experiment and didn’t know that the other two were acting carefully rehearsed roles, would be ‘teaching’ the actor-learner by reading a list of word pairs, then repeating the first word of each pair and having the learner respond with the second. If the learner got the word wrong, the teacher would push a button that he believed to cause an electric shock to be delivered to the learner. Actually, no electric shock was administered, but the actor-learner would act as if there was. Every time the learner made a mistake, the teacher was led to believe that the voltage being delivered (and labelled as ‘intense’ and ‘dangerous’ on the control panel in front of him) was increased. After a number of voltage level increases, the teacher could hear the actor-learner screaming and even banging on the wall that separated them. Although teachers might then wish to stop the experiment, the white-coated supervisor would calmly insist that they continue, in the interests of the experiment. Despite the actor-learner manifesting increasing degrees of agony over the ‘increased voltage’ (to the point of collapsing), over sixty percent of the educators would continue to ‘increase the voltage’ up to a massive and generally fatal 450 volts, even although they questioned the experiment, and felt emotional and physical discomfort over continuing.

The experiment was designed to measure the degree to which an average person will override their empathic and ethical sense under the influence of authority. It highlights the willingness we have to allow official, scientific and organizing activities to abuse our moral attention. Convinced that they are by necessity on the receiving end of a control system, human beings blindly adopt the ‘it’ relationship. The effect is heightened when the control system is ruled by a principle or a mission. On the more horrific end of the scale we note Auschwitz and Tuol Sleng and the neo-Nazi massacre in Norway in 2011 as instances where humans were treated as ‘its’ and subject to a higher principle. But then there’s the Rwanda genocide, ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia, and the genocide and slavery that accompanied the colonisation of the New World.  On a day-to-day basis we can feel this ‘non-negotiable’ effect in procedures that involve an official: ‘I’m sorry madam, but you’re form isn’t filled in properly, you can’t board the plane …’  ‘But my son ...’ ‘I’m sorry, madam …’ As we can see in the current and prolonged economic crisis in the West, economic theory and fiscal policy translates into and impacts the reality of daily life. There’s a dramatic clash between abstracts like the euro, deficits and interest rates and the lived reality of getting food, shelter and a decent way of making a living.  Of even more widespread and long-term concern is the way that the Earth itself is an ‘it’. Probe it, frack it, blast it, no matter what the toxic effect; the oceans are ‘it’: dump whatever you don’t want in them. Even though the poisons will work their way up the food chain and into your body, the air becomes unbreathable and the soil washes away. This is the result of wrong attention. If you can’t engage the rational and empathic centres when you deal with any aspect of the biosphere, if others are passive ‘its’, suffering and stress will surely follow.

'It' relationships are a part of how we relate to existence. They offer simplistic clarity and free range to follow our wishes and projections. They present control of the other as a conceivable, and in fact optimal, relationship. To accomplish this we employ quick techno-fixes, fiscal sleight of hand, and use guns and tear-gas if necessary. Yet as cause and effect  – kamma – is always involved with any act of attention, we reap many results. For example, when we hold our minds in that relationship, when the mind is an object that has to be straight and right and always ready to work, inner demons prosper and flourish. More common than any fire-breathing goblin with a trident is the authoritative voice of the demon that pushes people to work all hours calmly insisting that they continue to do so for the sake of the future; or the ones that get people to swindle and lie for the sake of the company; or the ones that get people to kill for the sake of God, the nation, the mission. Rather like the ‘teacher’ in the Milgram experiment, we may notice that the mind is resisting, or in stress, but many of us continue to increase the voltage.  In the ‘it’ domain, abstractions rule.

Perhaps for the scientific mind, the most difficult thing to accept is that it can’t know an object. That approach merely measures; it can’t deeply understand the empty conditioned nature of things – the awareness that offers release. But with deep attention what we take stock of is the mind-state at this moment. You don’t know the other, but you are aware of your mind’s dwelling in worry or irritation, kindness or appreciation. You know the results of staying in that. So you bring forth what will sustain the mind in honesty, clarity and kindness. What we can deeply know is relational respect. Respect for self and respect for others (hiri-ottappa): these are the guardians of the world, parents of morality and kindness.

To guard the inner and outer worlds entails regarding all things in the ‘me-you’ relationship. You surprise me. You frustrate and delight me, and teach me about real life by not fitting into my projections. You are generous for no apparent reason, forgiving when I expect blame, and calmly unimpressed when I am at my melodramatic peak. I never understand you. There is the pain of attachment if we take any one being as a real and solid ‘you’ – yet, how could I live without ‘you’? The fact is, I don’t have to. ‘You’ as a relationship is a mode of attention that can allow any individual thing to pass through its lens, and teach ‘me’ to wake up.  


  1. Very true and in these times when politicians across Europe refuse to see inter-connection we see the devastating results. It's rather scary.

  2. "'You' as a relationship is a mode of attention..." I've been sitting with this for a few days now. What is its meaning? The heart's initial response was one of disquiet. Partly the result of the discomfort of not understanding. But it felt like there was something deeper than that. A need to have the 'you' relationship as something more solid, more fixed, than "a mode of attention." It reminded me of an experience I'd had several years ago following a dharma talk on the five aggregates during a retreat at Spirit Rock. For the first time it had struck me that the teaching on the aggregates didn't apply only to me. It applied to everyone around me including the teachers. For some reason this was more unsettling, more destabalizing, than applying the teaching to loosen my own sense of self. Irrationally perhaps, the feeling was that it was safe to carry out this challenging and scary work of self de-construction only if the teacher was solid, fixed, reliable. Hmmmm. Sounds like a bit of sleight of hand. I could let go of the sense of 'me' as long as the teacher could be relied on to hold that 'me' in my stead. Whew. A bit of confusion here. For the time being, I think I'll just rest with that.

  3. Applying a 'you' attention means that the subject and the object become interchangeable: 'how would it feel to be in his/her shoes?' Of course you don't know – but the sense of conscience and concern opens. That sense is holistic - 'to others as to myself' and doesn't disconnect from the 'I'. The stability lies in maintaining that relationship.
    Politics is the process whereby a group of 'I's are cast into a single unit of 'we.' If that process bypasses the 'you' phase of mutual acknowledgement, the result is various forms of tyranny. The problem of nation-states and central government is that the numbers are too big for a 'you' process. So what is needed are tiers of local governments to form more authentic consensus, with the central government supervising ethical standards and co-ordination. This is how Sangha works.