According to a recent report on the NBC Nightly News, American police have been running stop signs and causing serious accidents, so distracted have they become by the computers in their cars. To address the problem, the Fort Wayne, Indiana police department has installed devices that freeze the computer’s keys whenever the patrol car’s speed exceeds fifteen miles per hour.
This situation may be uniquely ironic, but the underlying problem is hardly peculiar to the police. On the contrary, in the age of the Internet and ubiquitous mobile devices, distraction has become endemic. With so many objects summoning our attention, where shall we direct it? On what objects should we place our minds?
In many situations, such as when operating a chainsaw, we have little choice but to attend to the task at hand. Our safety depends upon it. But in many others, we do have a choice, and should we elect to engage in meditation, Buddhist teachings offer a variety of objects on which we might place our minds. If you are already practicing meditation, you know that the most basic object is the breath—its comings and goings, its length and texture. But beyond that, the Teachings of the Elders, as they are called, prescribe four general objects (or “foundations”) of mindful awareness.
According to the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana Sutra), a fundamental text of the Theravadan school, those objects are the body (its posture, movements, and parts); the feelings (pleasant, unpleasant, neutral); transitory mental states; and “objects of mind.” The last of these foundations includes such objects as the “Five Hindrances” (craving, aversion, sloth, agitation, and doubt), which impede meditation, and the “Seven Factors of Enlightenment,” which are to be cultivated through systematic attention. By contemplating the hindrances, we gradually diminish their power. And by placing our attention on the Factors of Enlightenment, which include concentration, tranquility, and equanimity, we purify our minds, freeing them of “mental afflictions.”
Zen Buddhism is a late flowering of the classical tradition, and though its teachings incorporate elements of Theravadan practice, its prescribed objects of mindfulness are fewer in number and less introspective in character. Broadly speaking, the Zen practitioner is enjoined to focus on the breath, whether by counting out-breaths (susokkan) or “following” the breath (zuisokukan); on koans such as “What is this?” or “What is the sound of one hand?”; and on one’s sitting presence itself (shikantaza). By so doing, the Zen disciple endeavors to cut through conceptual thought with the “sword of attention,” to extinguish the ego’s promiscuous delusions, and to abide continuously in the present moment—the “only moment,” as Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh often puts it, “where life is available to us.”
All of Zen’s traditional objects are worthy of attention, but lest the practice become narrow and rigid, it is important to remain open to other possibilities. The Vipassana teacher Jack Kornfield, who speaks of meditation as an art, warns against fixating on any one object or method of paying attention. Instead he advocates a flexible approach, in which the practitioner’s “wise attention” becomes a “zoom lens,” opening from a concentrated close-up to the middle distance to a panoramic view, depending on present conditions. Practicing “close-up” attention, we focus intently on a sensation, feeling, or thought, eventually becoming absorbed in the object of attention. Practicing in the middle distance, we witness whatever is occurring, be it a mental event or an occurrence in our immediate surroundings. And practicing panoramic attention, we open the mind’s lens to its widest angle, allowing our awareness to become “like space or the sky.” In this unconditioned awareness, thoughts, images, feelings, and sounds come and go, as though they were clouds in the sky. And as a final step, we can focus on awareness itself, observing its “clear, transparent, [and] timeless” nature. Like open space itself, unconditioned awareness allows all things, without being limited by any one of them.*
Jack Kornfield also recommends the practice of listening to the “sounds of the universe,” which is to say, the sounds in our immediate environment. This practice, Kornfield notes, “brings the mind to a naturally balanced state of openness and attention.” In similar fashion, the Theravadan teacher Ajahn Amaro encourages us to meditate on the “inner sound,” or the “sound of silence.” In this esoteric practice, known as nada yoga, we listen first to the sounds around us, whatever they may be. Within that body of ambient sound, we may detect a “continuous, high-pitched inner sound.” By concentrating on this “nada” sound, we cultivate stability of mind, even as we heighten our awareness of the insubstantiality of thoughts, feelings, and states of mind. And if we persist in the practice, Amaro observes, we may come to realize the “orderly perfection in which the world is balanced within the heart of vibrant silence.”**
To place the mind on the “nada” sound, or indeed upon any of the traditional objects of Buddhist meditation, is a far cry from placing it on the latest garish pop-up on our computer screens. Yet in this instance the issue of “high” versus “low,” or “wholesome” versus “unwholesome” objects of attention, is somewhat beside the point. For those of us who spend hours online, claims on our attention are countless and more or less continuous. Given such conditions, it behooves us to remember that where the disposition of attention is concerned, we have a choice, and that our power to choose can be strengthened by daily practice. Moment by moment, it might be said, we are creating the reality we inhabit. And to an extent that may surprise us, that reality is determined by where and how we have placed our minds.
* Jack Kornfield, “A Mind Like Sky,” The Best Buddhist Writing 2004, ed. Melvin McLeod (Shambhala, 2004), 329-334.
** Ajahn Amaro, “The Sound of Silence,” Buddhadharma, Winter 2012, 27-31.