Paying Attention Camp

Earlier this year, I finally went to Paying Attention Camp. It had been on my list for a long time. It was very cold there, but that's just because I went in February.

The rooms were small. Just large enough for a bare-mattress bed, a sink, a chair, and a three-ring binder full of rules. One of the rules was that you had to bring your own sheets and towel. They sent me this rule before I left home, but I hadn't read it. Attention to detail is not my strong suit. Fortunately they had extras for people like me.

Paying Attention Camp had a lot of rules. It had so many rules that it felt like I was going to prison. Here are a few of them. No phones. No internet. No music. No reading. No staying up late. No talking. No eye contact with other people. No scented personal care products. No noisy clothes.

But really there was only one big rule. Here it is: Pay attention!

That's why I call it Paying Attention Camp. They didn't call it that. Officially, it was the Way of Wisdom Three Day Silent Retreat at the Insight Meditation Society of Barre, Massachusetts. Those of us on the retreat were called "retreatants." Which is a lumpy word, but the alternative was "yogis," as used in phrases like "Remember to attend your yogi job training before the opening session!" Yogi is nice and short, but I can't read it without thinking of this.

I imagined my yogi job training might involve picnic baskets. My actual yogi job was to clean up after breakfast.

This is how you pay attention at Paying Attention Camp. You sit down in a big room. Time passes, and eventually somebody rings a bell. When you hear the bell, you can stand up again, assuming your legs still work. In between, you're supposed to pay attention. Silent and still. Not looking forward, not looking back. Just watching what's happening right now. That's all there is to it, but it's not easy. For one thing, you're stuck inside your head with just you for company, and that guy's kind of an asshole.

Also, many aches and itches come to visit, and some of them use power tools to build permanent dwellings in your back and knees. It's impossible to say how long one of these sitting sessions lasted. By my estimate it was anywhere between six and ten hours. I'm told, but find it hard to believe, that it never lasted more than 45 minutes. I needed a roomful of peer pressure to get through it.

Trying to pay attention for three days is hard. It's hard to do for even a few minutes at a stretch. Our instructor had a special question when he wanted to make sure we were paying attention: "Is the mind aware?" I'd think, "Duh, of course the mind is aware." Then I'd look around and wouldn't you know it, the mind was nowhere to found. Usually I'd find it hanging out at a bar with its buddies, Worry and Distraction. Or else down some back alley with Regret. Embarrassing.

But it turns out that paying attention is good for you in the same way that exercise is good for you. If you do it regularly, you'll feel better. That's the promise, anyway. And I believe it, but the problem is that you never know WHEN it's going to make you feel better. Like exercise, it mostly makes you feel crappy right away. You put in your time meditating, and there you are: sore, stiff, and blinking in the light. At such a moment, you can feel a little entitled. Yo! I paid my dues, Mr. Buddha-pants, so where's my goddamn bliss? This is not, as the Buddhists say, a skillful question. But such is human perversity.

Over my three day retreat, I thought more and more about this analogy to physical exercise. I thought, I'm building up a muscle. An attention muscle. But what does the attention muscle do? I think it works like this.

Can we have the next slide please?

Here you are, responding to the world. That scrawny little thing in the middle is your brain. Let's consider a specific example. Imagine you're hammering a nail, but you miss it and instead you whack the shit out of your left thumb. In frustration you kick the dog, who has the misfortune to be nearby.

Kicking the dog is stupid and cruel, but what choice did you have? It just happened. It's not your fault the dog was there.

See how it works? Your brain is so thin and inflexible that your hammer-catcher is wired directly to your dog-kicker. That's the thing we're trying to fix. Here's where the attention-strength comes in. You can actually pry apart the sensation from the response and make a little space in there. It's hard work, but it's possible. It takes a lot of attention-strength.

And just look at that mess! It's a snake’s nest of mindless behavior circuits. Those are all hardwired responses: snarling retorts, sullen pouts, sarcastic insults… a minefield of poor choices and bad moods just waiting to happen. After a time, you realize each wire is a choice, not an inevitability.

You don't have to react to all those sensations. You can just let the happening things happen. Not that it's easy, but that’s why you exercise. You can pull out those wires. You don't have to kick the dog.

Clear enough space between sensation and response, and you can just sit in there and watch the world go by. That's your brain getting bigger! This is where the work pays off.

And when you choose to act, you can be skillful about it. That's what they call it at Paying Attention Camp: "being skillful." That is, don't act out of habit or craving or fear. Act out of wisdom, compassion, and the needs of the moment. Bad things still happen, but it's amazing how much self-inflicted damage you can avoid just by paying attention. Your dog will thank you.

How can so much value come from such a simple practice? It's a good question. I think it is a great mystery. But it seems to work. "Pay attention," says Mr. Buddha, "You'll see."

Thinking about attention as skilled physical effort also help me frame how I thought about my three-day retreat. It was basically like a weekend sports clinic. Did I become enlightened? That's like asking someone just back from soccer camp if they won the World Cup. It’s a nonsense question. You gain a few skills, you meet some nice people, and you get a better sense of the vast landscape you inhabit. You get a sense that the journey is worthwhile. But you also realize that you have to keep up the practice if you want to get good and stay good. Like sports, getting in shape once doesn't mean you stay in shape forever. But you can develop a lasting taste for the fruits of discipline. That was the gift of Paying Attention Camp. That's why I'm glad I went.