From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 9
© 1990 Far West Editions
and Total Attention
by Hubert Benoit
Being will be realized in myself to the extent that I stop assuming, by my inner attitudes, that I am already, that my temporal part is divine. When I observe myself, I see that I incessantly tend to modify, with all that I am, my temporal situation. It is perfectly legitimate that I tend to modify my temporal situation; that is the incessant and normal play of the natural reconciling principle which gives rise to all my natural impulses. But what is not normal is the tendency in me, being man and not animal, to modify my temporal situation with all that I am. In effect, I have in me, beside the tendency to be temporally, the tendency just “to be,” without limits, in an absolute way. The first tendency is limited, the second extends the first to infinity. When the tendency “to be absolutely” also manifests itself in the direction of modifying my temporal situation, it goes astray, it falls into the trap of the illusion of the senses, it commits original sin.
On the contrary, my need “to be” can be realized only in the full acceptance of my temporal situation, such as it is in each instant. Only by accepting the imprisonment of my temporal part can all of me, my virtual “being,” escape from my temporal prison.
Thus I see that the two tendencies which are in me must, from the point of view of the temporal, have exactly opposite directions: the temporal tendency must naturally go toward a constant modifying of my temporal situation; the tendency toward “being” must go toward the total acceptance of this situation in each instant. It is this duality which I must thoroughly understand, lest I fall either into self justification, the unbridled, unlimited, instinctive reaction of temporal life, or into resignation, the instinctive reaction of temporal death.
The tendency to modify my temporal situation and the tendency to accept it would evidently be irreconcilable if they had to act on the same level. But this is not the case. The tendency to modify acts on the automatic level of my impulsive life; this happens first. The tendency to accept acts on the level of conscious reflexion where I see myself, where I am subject for whom the impulses of my life are object.
When I live without reflexion, the subject is Me; the Self is asleep (though still existing); my emotion acts without an observer. Is that to say, then, that I accept it? No. The Self is asleep, and allows things to happen in its absence. This is not acceptance.
But when does the awakened Self act? Is it each time that I am aware of my emotion? No, not even then. All functioning of the reflexive consciousness is not necessarily the Self. Because impulse, if I do not make a special inner effort, connects to my thought and makes it act. This happens, for example, when I pass judgment on some emotion that I am aware of. It means that an opposite and momentarily stronger emotion has taken hold of my thought. When the Self acts, that is to say, Independent Intelligence, free from connection to these impulses, no judgment is passed on my desires, my emotion is neither condemned nor approved. For that which essentially characterizes the action of the Self is the inner sensation of a radical distinction between my emotion and myself; I see my emotion as something which has nothing in common with my thought. Pure thought has nothing which unites its nature with that of desire; it is something entirely different, it is on another level, it is neither for nor against anything, it “is.”
Then we begin to see what real acceptance is. It is not an approval, it is a differentiation, a separation. I accept my emotion when I separate myself from it, when I affirm myself existing beside it, apart from it.
We are going to see even more clearly what real acceptance is by defining what it is not. When I become aware of my emotion without making the special inner effort which separates me from this emotion, I am necessarily, with respect to this emotion, for or against it. Let us first suppose that I am against it. In this case, I accept, as we say, the obstacle of the world with which virtually all emotion meets; in the conflict in which the world and I are antagonists, I accept the world as antagonist; but I do not accept myself as antagonist since my condemnation of my emotion stops its action, inhibits it; I accept the world but not myself. I am not impartial; I do not accept everything.
Let us now suppose that I am for my emotion. I accept myself. But this time I do not accept the obstacle of the world. I again violate the sense of the conflict and I deprive myself of its results.
In either case, what help is brought by my partial and captivated thought to one of the antagonists? This help is immense, because thought places on the scales the absolute and infinite potential, which is its attribute. In acting in this way, thought does not partially violate the conflict, it nullifies it by introducing an infinite, qualitative difference between the opponents.
True acceptance is simultaneous acceptance of my emotion and the obstacle of the world; it is my presence arbitrating the conflict without intervening in it. My presence is indifferent to the result; it is a distinct presence which, by accepting each adversary with the nature proper to it, refuses to add to the temporality of one or the other the infinite potential of thought—to which neither has any right. In both the cases of deception that we have described, the illusion of self- justification and the illusion of resignation, it was a matter of attitude: thought, seduced by the temporal level and deposited in it, takes a describable form, I hold myself in a certain way. In total acceptance, on the contrary, where the thought is pure, where there is no deception, attitude and describable form have disappeared, leaving only the indescribable, original form which has not been seduced into covering the temporal with a mask of the absolute.
Thus, there is no attitude in full acceptance, and if I wanted to say how I am when I accept totally, I could only say that my thought is expressed on the temporal level, is expressed there by a simultaneous “yes” and “no”: “yes,” that is to say, “it is thus, my emotion is thus and the world-obstacle is thus”; “no,” that is to say, “I am other than all that.”
In the same way that this pure thought throws an intellectual light on the temporal level, so it also throws an emotional light: this is the feeling that however the struggle between my temporal self and the world obstacle is going, this struggle is good. For pure thought, for the Self, it does not matter which wins. What matters is that the struggle be without cheating. Up to the point that the Self is present and is feeling, it feels that this struggle is good, that it is exactly at the point it should be. This is how acceptance of fate must be understood—the certainty that what happens to me, whatever that may be, is precisely the best thing that could happen to me. Right acceptance of fate is not acceptance of all that may happen to me in the future. That would not be reconcilable with acceptance of my desires. The right acceptance of fate is acceptance in the instant, not in elapsed time (otherwise one would fall back into resignation). This is not surprising since the accepting self is not temporal, it acts in the “instant,” at the intersection of time and eternity.
In all that we have just said, we have spoken of “desire” without being more specific. But now we must recall a very important distinction between two kinds of desires. In the first kind of desire, which I call temporal impulse or simply impulse, I tend toward the simple realization of my temporal aspect, toward satisfying my functions. This is a “natural” desire, perfectly right and normal. In the second kind of desire which I call “temporal aspiration,” I search on the temporal level for proof of the realization of my total “being.” For example, I may experience a simple sexual desire, the need to satisfy my sexual function; but I may experience desire for the same act with a woman whom I love passionately while looking to it for a sensation of my divine nature. In the first case, it is a question of impulse, in the second, a question of temporal aspiration. I may simply be hungry (which is an impulse), but I may also, being very poor, justify the desire for a good meal, such as I see others enjoying (which is a temporal aspiration).
The Self, when I am present, approves of neither the impulse nor the temporal aspiration. Once again it is not for the Self to approve or disapprove of anything whatever on the temporal level. What must be understood is that the presence of the impulse is compatible with the presence of the Self, whereas the presence of the temporal aspiration is incompatible with this presence . This is because the impulse is a limited tendency which, starting in the direction of the absolute, stops before it has gone off in another direction, whereas the temporal aspiration is an unlimited tendency which, starting in the direction of the absolute, deviates and comes back to where it started.
The presence of the Self, we have said, is impartial in front of my struggle with the world. The temporal aspiration, however, presupposes partiality since the unlimited property of this tendency comes from the infinite potentiality it steals from my thought, which is asleep. It is thus incompatible with total, impartial presence. When I am totally present, I accept both my tendency and the obstacle of the world, but this is impossible if my tendency consists precisely in a negation of the world obstacle.
However, although the temporal aspiration is incompatible with total presence, it is nonetheless thanks to this aspiration that I can achieve this presence. Because pure thought, originally asleep, can only awaken when its absolute potentiality has been stolen from it, when this theft, arousing the instinct of death, places my whole being in danger and when I have struggled to regain my absolute potentiality from the world which tries to usurp it. It is by working on my temporal aspirations, by bringing them back, through my understanding, to simple manifestation of the underlying impulses, that I may set free the absolute potentiality that was usurped and create from it my “being.”
The satisfaction of impulses does not by itself create total “being,” but only if this satisfaction is intelligently preferred to the temporal aspirations based on these impulses. And the creation of total “being” will be realized as much as the abandoned temporal aspiration is intense. The anguish I feel when I refuse to satisfy my temporal aspiration measures the degree of my need for the absolute and my possibility of reaching it. To consent quite simply to the impulse when attracted by temporal aspiration is “creative,” but the impulse alone is not, and when I am in front of the impulse, without having fully consented to this reduction, I suffer from the absence of something divine. I am tempted to refuse the impulse, and if positive manifestation of the temporal aspiration is impossible, to suffer in a way which is itself a manifestation—only negative this time—of this temporal aspiration. To simply enjoy the impulses of my life according to the various aspects of my temporal nature is not easy to consent to; for one who knows the violent vibration, the intense flavor, of temporal aspiration, a life of obeying impulses is quite dull. I can only consent to it through the intellectual certainty that, if I act thus, I will succeed in obtaining that marvel which I glimpsed through aspiration, and only if this intellectual certainty is strong enough to engender hope for, and love of, that which awaits me on this way.
Let us look for a moment at the suffering felt at the moment of letting go my temporal aspiration. It is what I experience when my passion is threatened by some obstacle. It is the fear of losing a false relationship with the sacred, of falling back into this Godless world from which my passion had seemingly rescued me. There can be such terror that I refuse to make this renunciation. If I understand enough to be able to make it, this does not stop the suffering and there is a risk that I take pleasure in it, because it is another seemingly sacred manifestation, in a negative sense, of my temporal aspiration. Of course, this negative manifestation must be dropped as was the positive one. Such suffering is not directly useful for my realization. It moves me to refuse my ordinary impulsive life. The attitude in which it places me comes from the death instinct. It is only useful for my work indirectly, because of the fearful and salutary warning that it gives me, the organic fear it provokes and the resulting opening in me to a deeper understanding.
But I repeat that this anguish, contrary to another suffering which we will look at later on, is not directly usable and I must try to eliminate it. For that, I must avoid the trap of getting sulky, of getting caught in a distress which deifies me in a negative sense. I must accept my simple impulsive life, abandon my castration complex and accept simply temporal happiness.
If I pass this stage, I reach a condition in which it will be possible to know a new suffering, completely different from the first, and which this time introduces me to the realm of “being.” This suffering is not the fear of losing an illusory sense of divinity, but the suffering of not existing in my true divine essence while fulfilling my temporal nature. This suffering will not come of itself, released automatically by the temporal circumstances. In fact, indulging the impulses of my life engenders boredom and even despair, but this is not where we shall find creative suffering, because a man in this state does suffer from a lack, but from a lack of something whose existence he does not even imagine. It is not enough if the life of impulses fully lived falls short of man’s need “to be absolutely.” This illusion must be correctly interpreted, and a correct interpretation is possible only if, in the course of the interplay of impulses which are satisfied, I tend not only toward my temporal aim, but also toward a conscious non-temporal aim that impulse does not satisfy. Creative suffering is not automatic. It is a kind of suffering which I must consciously earn by doing a special work. This is not something given to me, it is not the given fact of a problem to solve, but is the result, obtained with difficulty, of a sustained work. This work takes place in life conditions, but although it always runs parallel to my temporal, impulsive life, without which it cannot be imagined, it does not blend with it and always remains an inner experience. The work that we mentioned first, by which I give preference to simple impulses over temporal aspirations, occurs entirely on the temporal level. Its purpose is to modify my manifestation. But this new work of which we are now speaking has no bearing whatever on my manifestation and is not visible at all from the outside.
Inner work consists in moving as relentlessly and intensely as possible toward an absolute reality of which I had a foretaste from the satisfaction of my temporal aspirations and which I know infinitely surpasses the relative reality of the temporal. During the joys of passion, I have sensed that the reality which I glimpsed surpassed to an infinite degree the temporal object of my passion. I sensed that there is an immense cosmic reality existing independently of the particular temporal object and with respect to which the temporal object was for me only a kind of platform contingent on my observation. Passion was not what led me into this higher dimension but it made me experience its existence, it gave me the certainty. I must now have the intelligence and courage to give up the observation platform and the illusion of ecstasy that I found there. Renouncing the outer reflections of this light, I must turn my attention toward the center of myself, and there, where I can as yet see only darkness, move by a fervent wish toward the luminous source which I know to be potentially present within.
This spiritual aspiration must take place, as we have said, in the very midst of the ordinary impulses of life. One might object that this is going to distract my attention from temporal life. However, it is not so. The attention which I give to absolute reality is not taken from the temporal attention. There is a surplus of attention which is awakened out of sleep, which was not in the temporal and which does not diminish temporal attention. It is important to understand the exact relationship between these two attentions. Temporal attention is to absolute attention what the temporal aspect of man is to his total “being,” what the need to be temporally is to the need to “be absolutely.” The two attentions are not divergent. Absolute attention extends temporal attention infinitely without thwarting its action. A rough comparison may help us to understand this: if I pick some flowers to give to someone, the awareness that I have, while picking these flowers, of the purpose I intend them for, does not distract me from the movements I have to perform. I pay attention at the same time to the stem that I am cutting and to the reason why I am making these movements.
The attention which I give to absolute reality, as has been said, is not taken from temporal attention. Nevertheless, my state of total attention is going to modify the action of my previously only temporal attention. In fact, the surplus attention which cannot be invested in the immediate temporal object with which I was in contact in such a moment, is invested in the temporal in another way. The Self being asleep and not directing my total attention, this attention is invested, by the imagination, in temporal objects which I am not immediately in contact with at the moment. This attention escapes from the narrow prison of the moment and wanders about in the past and the future. This enables us to understand how total attention will function when the Self is awake: it is concerned only with my currently present temporal situation—all the rest, freed by this voluntary limitation, rushes by its very nature toward an absolute perception that it calls for and conjures up in the darkness. We say: by its very nature. And actually, it would be useless, and even wrong, to try to find any object whatever on which this absolute attention could be fixed. Such an object is undefinable and inconceivable for me now. If I were to try to find one, I would fall into a purely temporal differentiation and would set up an idée-fixe in myself. It is enough to limit my attention to the present moment and by so doing free that part of the attention which should not be invested in the temporal. This virtually infinite surplus, extracted thus from the temporal prison, will find its way by itself. It will once again use my imagination, but this time in a creative sense, and no longer simply evoke my accumulated psychic material.
What matters, then, and it is quite enough, is that I understand and achieve the kind of temporal attention that corresponds to the awakening and the action of total attention. This temporal attention, brought back to its proper place and reintegrated in total attention, limits itself, as we have said, to my present temporal situation. However, this is much more than the temporal object present in my sensory and mental perception. It is this object, but considered in its connections with all my temporal life, that is, with all of the temporal aims toward which I move. The ordinary attention that I give to the world when I am not making any special effort is as though stuck to the immediate object. I am lost, identified with what I am doing, without being aware why I am doing it. I forget what I have in view beyond my action. Often, however, I am aware of a temporal aim toward which my action is directed, but it is a very near aim and I forget that it is a means towards a more distant aim. Without making a special effort, I am as though nearsighted, my vision glued to my action and, even if I am alive meantime in the wandering imagination, I am not alive in temporal reality. On the contrary, I recover my temporal attention according to the corresponding mode of action of total attention when I extricate myself, to some extent, from my action, and seeing it from higher up, I become aware not only of the next specific object, but of the general temporal environment and the farthest object toward which my action moves. In short, the more aware I am of what I am doing and the reasons why I am acting thus, the better my attention is, from the standpoint of “being.” I said that my temporal attention has to be limited to my current temporal situation, but this is not to say that it must stop as short as my laziness would have it. Rather, it must push itself, in my temporal life, as far as necessary for it to come up against its real limits, those which are really imposed by my temporal situation. My attention must not stop until after it has exhausted the full range that my temporal condition allows, and although this is necessarily limited, it is far from being a small thing.
It is easy to see with what enormous laziness we refuse to keep in the field of our awareness the most complete possible expanse of our temporal life. I may be in front of an action which is new for me, and have to envisage up to a point what connects this action to the rest of my life, to my temporal future. But as soon as the action is repeated and I am no longer obliged to consider why it exists, it becomes automatic, that is, the attention that I give it shrinks more and more to a minimum and quite often to zero. I do something and am not aware at all of my reasons for doing it. Automatism is a true sleep of real attention—a sleep during which I dream in wandering imagination. The automatism we speak of is not the automatism of mental or bodily functioning, which is necessary and beneficial—the automatism I speak of is forgetfulness, unawareness of my motives, that is to say losing sight of the overall plan of the temporal modification toward which the impulses of my life tend. It is a state in which I fail to include the whole of my temporal life and where, in not going to the real limits of my temporal condition, I do not accept these limits and so cannot achieve the total attention that is implied by this acceptance.
When I am aware of my motive for doing something, when I am aware of my action as being truly integrated in the whole of my temporal life, all my attention that is not shut into the limits of my temporal attention rushes, as we have said, toward an absolute perception which it calls for and arouses. But this absolute perception will have a temporal dimension, it will correspond to certain temporal perceptions. This could be foreseen and is just what is observed. When I achieve voluntary attention I see that I do not perceive only what directly concerns my action and my motives. I do not perceive only what I must perceive to fulfill my desire. At the same time I perceive, in the world around me, many things which are unrelated to my desire, many things which I observe in a disinterested way. These perceptions, which relate me to objects which I am actually distinct from (since they are separated from the desires to which I am paying attention), correspond to a real contact, to a real participation with the world. I can really be united with what I perceive outside the limits of my life of impulse. And this is possible because I have reached, by an effort of my voluntary attention, the limits of this emotional life which is fully embraced by my consciousness from the angle of my present action.
Let us come back to the kind of temporal attention that corresponds to total attention. I said that I must be aware not only of what I am doing but also of my reasons for doing it. I must be aware, through knowing these reasons, of my action to the extent that it is included in the totality of my temporal life. But I see that these reasons, when I follow them through, always end up affirming me such as I am in the world. Each impulse tends in the long run to want my whole life. As for my temporal aspirations, these do not tend toward my temporal life. They do not like it. They do not accept it. However, all my impulses accept and want and love my life through all the objects that I like or dislike. To be aware of the reasons for the impulses is thus to be aware, under the particular circumstances in which I am, of the unconditioned love that I have for my life, and of the approval that I give it with all my strength. It is to perceive, beneath the particular objects which my senses reveal to me, the total object which contains all objects and gives them their proper perspective, that is, my life.
Let us take an example. I am deprived of the presence of someone I love and I suffer. If I am asleep inwardly, my attention remains attached to this particular circumstance and my imagination continually weaves its painful embellishments. A single object is in the scope of my awareness—this absent being—and I have nothing to support my affirmation of myself. I search in vain for this support, I am swallowed up, I am afraid, I despair. If, however, I awaken innerly, then my attention is set free from this particular circumstance. It does not lose sight of it, but sees it as if at a distance, in a completely different perspective. Embracing the instantaneous totality of my life, of my situation in the world, my attention perceives not only the contents of my situation, but what contains it, which is what I am in the world in this moment and what I am as a result of my present suffering. Thus my suffering ceases to be merely a lack, an absence. Leaving the lower level of negativity, it becomes integrated in a space where bipolarity no longer reigns, where everything is affirmed. When I see it thus, I affirm myself by it. Inasmuch as it is the present material of my life, it is a legitimate and effective support for me.
We see that such an attention does not constitute a dissociation, but on the contrary, a synthesis. The ordinary, passive attention is a dissociation. My presence is attached to the particular circumstances and is accompanied, due to my absence from my total life, by another presence glued, on the same level, to imaginary representations which likewise cut me off from the present moment.
Thus, this is not a dissociation of all my present powers, but on the contrary, a synthesis of these powers. But this synthesis leads to a dissociation in me on quite another level. This is the difference which exists between my present state of “realization” and the state, which I conceive of more or less intensely, where I should be in order to fulfill my truly infinite destiny. As we have said, when I am aware of the totality of my temporal life at the moment, when I inhabit the full expanse of this life up to its limits which I sense and accept, then the surplus of my attention, freed, rushes, through creative imagination, toward an absolute aim, surpassing the limit I’ve realized and making me feel its inadequacy. The further I continue on this way, the happier and more adapted I am to my temporal life. Furthermore, I feel at the same time the sorrow of having realized so little of my total “being.” Removing myself from the suffering of death due to my non-acceptance of my temporal condition, I move forward in the suffering of life which comes about because even the conquest of the totality of my temporal life is not enough to satisfy me. And this suffering of a completely new kind must deepen little by little until “illumination” takes place, what Zen Buddhism calls “Satori” and “the opening of the third eye.”