My Year of Attentionlessness

My Year of Attentionlessness


The crack in the ceiling resembled an overactive heartbeat which contrasted the droning somber white that covered the walls and the crown molding of the small room. The partial floor to ceiling window would provide most of the light throughout the day and become a symbol of the self recognition that would flood through me in the days to come. This is where it would happen. This is where I would learn to let go of the person that I thought I was and allow my previously stifled self to come through, pick up all of the scattered thoughts, and place them together in a much more structured path; one that went against all that I thought I was and all that I thought I was going to be.

It was official. I was back in Portland where my post-high school adventure had started. It felt so surreal to be back here after the year I had just experienced. At nineteen, I was more than able to say I had taken life by the horns and run my risks. By this point, I was a certified chef who had lived in France, Australia, and Bali. I was in a relationship with someone that truly loved and supported who I was and what I wanted to do. Most notable, I was enjoying as I watched myself transform and take on a new life path as I gathered a clearer understanding of who I individually was.

When I was in high school I found myself with plenty of time to spare; I was not interested in anything that I was studying and did not have a job for the first two years. I decided to do some reading of Zen Philosophy since I figured that I would need it with all of the chaos that was to come with this thing called life. I found that in Buddhism there is a lifestyle referred to as the Eightfold Path that was taught by Buddha to all of his followers. There are eight categories that, if followed, lead to the enlightenment or awakening of a beings inner-Buddha nature, more commonly known as Nirvana (“The Basic Teaching of Buddha”). These values are to be seen and practiced as one and in doing so lead to the perfecting of the three essentials of Buddhist training: Ethical Conduct, Mental Discipline, and Wisdom. Mental Discipline, which is sub-categorized by Right Effort, Right Mindfulness (Attentiveness), and Right Concentration (Rāhula 45-47), would clearly become the essential that I lacked the most.

I was the ripe young age of seventeen when my physical journey started. High school just wasn’t for me and I needed to get out. I was choking under the drama and the dead end lives that surrounded me everywhere I went in the small town of Beaumont, California. I took the fast track out of there, graduated a half year early, and worked my butt off to make myself a nice savings account before I went off to culinary school in Portland. I was going to follow my dreams of being a chef and traveling the world. My time there went by quickly, a whirlwind of amazing people, wonderful smells and food, and promises of once in a lifetime experiences with people that I would both never have anticipated and would never forget. Eight months after my arrival in Portland, there it was, right in front of me. All of my high school hopes and dreams summed up in one single letter. I had been accepted into an ideal program to work in the south of France for a one Michelin-starred restaurant for three months, subsequent to finishing my culinary degree. I couldn’t believe it. But there it was. All of my ambitions were coming true and I was one step closer to my life’s goal.

This sure sense of self that I felt was all but an illusion that I now see so clearly. When the term Dukkha came into my life I sensed the truth in it, the strength of its meaning as it pertained to me, and the way that I could have restructured my life around this one word and the philosophy from where it descended. In the excerpt from What the Buddha Taught Walpola Rāhula says, “[T]he . . . word dukkha in ordinary usage means ‘suffering’, ‘pain’, ‘sorrow’ or ‘misery’ . . . it also includes deeper ideas such as ‘imperfection’, ‘impermanence’, ‘emptiness’, ‘insubstantiality’” (17). I feel that the best interpretation of this philosophy is in the idea of impermanence. Through my experiences I have found Dukkha to mean all forms of suffering associated with attachment to ego, self, and the idea of self, which are all principally impermanent things. As a person grows and experiences life, the ideas they associate with themselves change; over time it is hard to understand why you did or acted in a certain way. The illusion of who I thought was I became so powerful that my view of the world came to hidebound to all of the possibilities whirling past.

Before I left for France, I had a talk with my father about how I felt taking this internship was a big step and one that would seal my fate in this world. It would be such an accomplishment to have on my resume when I applied to the next best place. I told him of the long days that I would work and the stress that would come with such a lifestyle. Abruptly, a wave of anxiety came over me at the possibility that I might someday want to change career paths. At this thought, I became unsure if I wanted to go, work so hard, give up holidays and vacations for the sake of a restaurant, leading myself into a life spent in kitchens, sleeping with coworkers because I didn’t have time for relationships or a family. I could feel myself drowning as my mind raced; I followed the emotions as they went from a simple train of thought to a vast sea of negativity in disarray. I was lost in this ocean and feeling no hope and worry for the days to come. This was one of the apparent moments in my life where I was lacking the essential of Right Effort. The idea of Right Effort is easy enough, simply prevent evil or distasteful states of mind from arising. When you have such thoughts be sensible enough to evict them, while be mindful of bringing good and nourishing thoughts to you, and when you have said good views on your mind make them pure (Rāhula 48). Had I practiced Right Effort during this conversation I would have been better equipped to eradicate the thoughts when they started and allowed some room to ponder and be aware of the beauty that would soon surround me. Shortly after this conversation I was on a plane, then another plane, and a train to get to where I needed to be. Cap d’Antibes. This would be home.

It became apparent, rather quickly, that I did not know the language as well as my grade displayed in high school, but I need not worry. I only had to make it through three months of this language barrier before I would be in Australia, on a workers visa, speaking English again. I met my roommate, Song Ok, who was, thankfully, American, and quickly got down to best friend making and small, French town exploring. She took me to the quirky shops and restaurants, our work, and the beach, which was a sufficient tour of this quaint town. It was at the coast line, which hugged both the rolling hills and the Mediterranean Sea, where I would feel the tug of my heart and the wandering of my mind to places beyond this life of exploring. But life was becoming so loud and so fast that I didn’t stop to listen.

My thoughts ran rampant amidst my days in France. All that I wanted was to silence them and enjoy my success and days off. Little did I know that I was trying to apply Right Concentration to my life. When someone begins their practice with Right Concentration they tend to go through the four stages of Dhyana, or trance, unintentionally. First one will try to uproot unhealthy thoughts and maintain mentally nutritious views. This is followed by the control of mental activity, the focus of self, and a centered development of mind. After this centeredness is attained the need for happiness and joy disappears, though the disposition still remains. Finally, once all of these desires for a state of being or understanding have been stilled one is able to live completely and wholly in the present and “only pure equanimity and awareness remain” (Rāhula 49). This was what I was trying to grasp and somehow live out. I didn’t need to be so overwhelmed with the language barrier or so unfocused and out of touch with the world around me. I needed to allow everything in my vicinity to come into full view and marinate into my being without the false impression that something was wrong. “You are in France,” I kept repeating. The only thing that made those days at work so long, the fact that I wasn’t fluent in French so horrible, and my lack of funds so unbearable was my ignorance to the control I had over my outlook on the situation. I knew that I needed to maintain a better mind set, it was just a matter of how to get there.

My time in France ended in a flash, with another destination looming just a short train and plane ride away. When I arrived in Australia I clearly remember being overjoyed to hear English being spoken in the airport. Working at the bar was fun. I met new friends and had the time of my life in that kitchen. It was fast paced and new. I had fallen in love and was becoming rather serious with a fellow coworker, but nothing seemed to stop the internal conflict. I felt it genuinely and I had to divulge my doubts to someone; that confidant became Neal. We talked for hours about this path that we had both chosen in life. It didn’t make sense. We both had it so good, great training at wonderful schools, amazing experiences with some extremely talented groups, in restaurants that had people waitlisted to work, and here we were, questioning it all. I thought this was it. Being a chef was all I had ever wanted to do, and I was doing it, but I was no longer happy in my strive to make it my life’s work. After a few more months in Australia, an off the wall job selling time shares in Bali, Indonesia, and a long talk with my now boyfriend, it was decided that I would return to the States.

Once back in Portland, couch surfing with a friend, I found myself chasing the same unsatisfying, culinary dream, not stopping to listen to my centered voice calling out to me in soft murmurs during the night. I was holding on, almost desperately, to the self that I had created in my head at the age of 17. I was merely 19 now, but I had seen the world, I had a plan for every step of the way, I had done things and made memories, and, yet, I was so unhappy sticking to this calling. I landed jobs at up and coming restaurants but couldn’t hold them because I wasn’t driven anymore. I couldn’t see myself in chef’s clothes for the rest of my life. One day as I sat on my couch in the stark white room of my friend’s apartment I compared who 17 year old me thought I wanted to be and who I was becoming. After high school I had promised myself no more institutionalized schooling and no boring 9-5 job. It made no sense that I felt myself wanting to go back to school, since I had not seemed to enjoy it the first twelve years around. It then came to me that I was so desperate to hold onto a dream that a younger self had created that I was recklessly throwing away a new passion for knowledge and a hunger for learning. From my lazy days on the beach in France to my mid-day talks in the park with a lover in Australia, I had been denying myself because I had a dream attached to an ego that was pinching my toes like old, tight shoes.

The subcategory of Right Mindfulness was one I wished I had proficiency in the most. To have Right Mindfulness (Attention) one is to be conscientiously aware of what their body is doing, the sensations and feelings that are associated with their person, and the behavior of their mind, including ideas and concepts (Rāhula 48). Had I been more mindful of those late night thoughts, and the reoccurrence with which they happened, I would have been able to see the importance that they held to my true, inner self. The emotions that lingered after these thoughts were also something to which I should have paid full attention. It is in those feelings and the realization of their pattern that would have assisted me in the capability to control my thoughts and bring me to the thing that I was doing at the time. My attention was scattered that year. I was never in a single place, but rather at the beach and the next continent I would visit, or in a tropical forest in Asia and a small coffee house chatting with a lover. I could never give my full attention to one object because I did not realize that I was in another place, mentally, until something startled me back to the present. My mind wandered and my attention spread. I lost hours, misplaced memories of train rides, and could not remember faces all because I was not attentive to the moment. I began to wonder how much I had missed out on and if there was any purpose to these realizations.

One calm, dawning morning, as I thought of when these ideas of change came to me, through avenues of communication and meditation, after so much time of concentrated focus and hard work, I was fearful of it all. This life that I was leading was in “search [of] a happiness through self-mortification in different forms of asceticism, which is ‘painful, unworthy and unprofitable’” (Rāhula 45). I was fighting between something that I was already aspiring to be, or rather something that was comfortable, and the abyss of uncertainty. I couldn’t help but laugh at my life and all of these ideas that were keeping me up. Amid the laughter an epiphany came to me, which I had the pleasure of reading again so eloquently: “As there is no permanent, unchanging substance, nothing passes from one moment to the next . . . The series [of life] is, really speaking, nothing but movement. It is like a flame that burns through the night: it is not the same flame nor is it another” (Rāhula 34). I was no longer 17. I had no reason to hold onto those dreams that a previous self had created. I was allowed to take a road that I had previously sealed off because this was what I wanted now, and now was where I was. As the sun came in over the Portland sky line it slowly seeped into the room, making it glow softly. The day became stronger and it seemed to reflect the inner light that was finally invigorating my mind. The weight and suffering caused by an idea that I had outgrown simply melted away, into the silence of the past.

To look back at that year it is rather obvious that it could have been a much more enjoyable chapter in my life had I been able to perform Mental Discipline daily. Being able to learn about the Eightfold Path and put it in perspective, through situations in my own life, helped me to better identify with Buddhism and the centeredness that we all have. Moving forward from this stage in my life, with this newly attained knowledge in hand, I hope to be able to incorporate the Eight Fold Path wholly into my life. My goal is not to reach Nirvana but rather to be conscious to my daily living. I want to be attentive to reality and have no illusions in my existence, but rather to see the world and be in the world to its fullest and most true forms.

 

 

Works Cited

Rāhula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. New York: Grove, 1974. Print.

“The Basic Teaching of Buddha.” The Basic Teaching of Buddha. City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. N.d. Web. 16 Feb. 2015.

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