Attention!

Reality is boundless; I vow to perceive it.

A Restatement of the Third Great Zen Vow

Peter Plympton Smith, a former congressman from Vermont, was defeated in his bid for re-election by Bernie Sanders. Graduating from prestigious Phillips Academy, with a bachelors degree from Princeton and a doctorate from Harvard, he was hired as the new dean of the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at the George Washington University where, shortly thereafter, I was also hired, as a new professor.

Dean Smith was born of a Boston Brahmin family but raised in Burlington Vermont, his father a Vermont banker and state senator. Thus, like many politicians of that locale, he developed a degree of familiarity with the French language as spoken by the Quebecois. That is why I still remember him, as we overlapped for just a year, after which he was recruited to be the founding president of a new branch of the California State University.

Leadership scholar Warren Bennis remarked, in reference to his own experience as a university president, that leading academic faculty members was like herding cats. But, as with most skills, some people are gifted while others struggle. As a dean and later as a president Smith was one of the gifted, serving a full decade in his presidential role.

There’s an old English fox-hunting song, “Do You Ken John Peel,” in which that hunter is described thusly: “Peel’s ‘view halloo’ [shouted when the fox is seen] could awaken the dead!” When Dean Smith felt he was about to lose control of those present at one of our many faculty meetings he would shout (in the manner of the fox hunter John Peel) “Attendez!”

So it’s not simply for his French/Canadian linguistic skill that I remember Peter Smith. It’s for his ability to use that capability to get a group of Bennis’ “academic cats” to focus on his message. And, more generally, I think of Dean Smith in terms of the importance of paying attention.

Why Pay Attention?

When I was young I collected postage stamps from around the world. Today most postage stamps are produced by a color lithographic process, but back in the 1960s most were miniature engravings, often in two or more colors. Printing from engraved plates leaves very fine lines of raised ink that you can feel with a gentle touch. For the best of these tiny works of art the result is an image that can seem almost three dimensional. These were my favorites, regardless of where they came from. I remember in particular engraved scenes of the natural world, of trees, flowers, rivers, and the countryside.

I think I was attracted to those little pictures because of my inability to perceive detail in the world around me. I became aware of this much later in life, after cataracts in my eyes were removed. For the first time I was able to see clearly and attend to the detail of the world around me.

Mary Oliver, one of the greatest American poets of the twentieth century, was known for observing and attending to the fine detail of the sensory experiences life offers. She was not hesitant in making clear her belief that this is what living is all about and what we are called to do, as she states in one of her famous poems, “Yes! No!”: “To pay attention / this is our endless and proper work.” (Mary Oliver, White Pine: Poems and Prose Poems.) Elsewhere, she writes, “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the soul exists and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.”

Reflecting perhaps on the “spear of grass” of which the poet Walt Whitman wrote, the author Henry Miller says that “the moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” Mysterious, awesome, perhaps even miraculous. Albert Einstein wrote, “Either nothing is a miracle or everything is a miracle.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, being a more observant Jew, takes the latter view and tells us to “live life in radical amazement”, paying attention because “everything is incredible . . .” concluding that “to be spiritual is to be amazed”.

Paying attention is how we might, Mary Oliver implies, develop and sustain our souls. Attentiveness opens up to an observer the whole of existence. In reading about the four great Zen vows I was puzzled by the third which, in the version I read, says, “The Gates of Dharma are manifold; I take a vow to enter them”. It’s been suggested that “the gates” may refer to reality and its infinite nature; entering those gates is, perhaps, as simple — and as difficult — as perceiving reality, that is, paying attention. It may be that by attending to this endless amazing universe within which we find ourselves and of which we are part that we become awakened and enlightened and, as Mary Oliver says, build our souls entirely out of attentiveness.