The Secret of Attention
For meditation, we are instructed to hold our attention at the eye center. But have we ever really thought about what this thing called ‘attention’ is? Once when Great Master was having a conversation with some visitors, answering their questions and trying to explain the basics of Sant Mat, he made an intriguing statement about the nature of attention:
In our body, the soul current appears in the form of consciousness or attention. Surat is the term used for soul in Sant Mat philosophy, and it means ‘attention.’ The second current that animates our body is the God current, the Word or the Holy Ghost. It manifests itself in the form of Shabd or Sound, which by different writers is called the celestial music, heavenly melody, unstruck symphony or audible life stream.”1
So he didn’t exactly say that the soul is attention; he said that in the body – when our consciousness is at the physical level – soul appears in the form of attention. Our attention is the aspect of soul that we can connect with, that we can experience, that we can know while we are still functioning at the physical level.
That’s important. Usually, when the saints try to explain the nature of the soul, they say that if the Lord is like an ocean, then the soul is a drop of that ocean. But that’s just a concept.
The problem is that we don’t know what God is. We merely have concepts. You could say our concepts give us a working hypothesis, and maybe that’s enough. But we can’t really know what God is until we have that experience. Similarly, if all we know about the soul is that it is a drop of something that we don’t know, all we have is a concept.
What is key about the above quote from Great Master is that attention is not a concept. We all know a lot about attention through our own experience. We know how it feels when our attention is scattered, and how it feels when it is focused. We know what it feels like when our attention is jumping from one thing to another, and how it feels when it’s more steady, more calm.
We can probably all remember an experience, perhaps back when we were in school with a paper due or a big exam the next day. We couldn’t settle down to the task at hand. Maybe we read the same page over and over, making no sense of it. We got up to make a cup of tea, or flipped on the TV, or called a friend. Then, at some point, we said to ourselves, “Enough! Stop messing around! This thing is due tomorrow!” And we got down to it: our attention got focused, and suddenly it all made sense, and we got it done. So we know a lot about our attention and its restless nature.
In From self to Shabd the author writes, “Our transformation begins when we become aware of where we keep our attention.2” Do we know where we keep our attention? Does it go willy-nilly here and there, without our awareness, much less our control? We open our eyes, see something, and our attention goes to it. We hear something, and our attention goes to it. A thought pops into our mind, and our attention goes right along for the ride.
But it’s also true that our attention is selective about a lot of the sensory input coming at us. We tune out whatever seems irrelevant to us – fans whirring, birds singing, traffic noises. A well-known audiologist said that most of the patients who come to him for a hearing test are husbands, referred by their wives. The wife says, “Darling, you seem to be missing a lot of what I’m saying – maybe you should get your hearing tested.” The husband comes in for the hearing test, and his hearing is just fine.
We’re very good at taking our attention away from whatever we’ve decided (consciously or unconsciously) is irrelevant to us. The problem is that for most of us, most of the time, what we are tuning out includes the Shabd. It is resounding 24 hours a day, but our attention is somewhere else. Where? Usually it is quite occupied with our busy, busy minds.
We like to say: The mind is so tricky, so powerful! We seem to be slaves of it. Certainly we are dancing to its tune. On the other hand, Baba Ji keeps telling us that the mind has no power of its own; it has only the power that we give it. What does that mean?
We read in the books that the mind takes its power from the soul. Mind comes from the second spiritual region, and the soul comes from much higher. All this is often explained in the form of a story: The soul is a princess of the royal realm but has fallen into the company of the mind. So now the soul is like a handmaiden to the mind, following helplessly wherever it leads. It’s like a slave, even though really it is a princess. The soul has the power of the king behind it but has given it over to the mind.
This is a fine allegory, but how does it help us? If to us ‘soul’ is an abstract concept, a drop of an ocean of we know not what, we’re still helpless. (And, honestly, if we’re not experiencing those higher regions, they don’t mean a lot to us either.)
But what happens if we understand the soul as our attention? Or, say, we understand that attention is an aspect of soul that we can connect with? Then how do we give power to the mind? Attention. And how do we take power away from the mind? Attention.
Maybe we don’t have such a big, fierce battle with the mind after all. Maybe it’s more like pulling the plug. Picture this: You’re standing in front of a machine that’s gone haywire, but you’re holding the power cord in your hand. Maybe you can just pull the plug. You switch your attention to simran, and you withdraw the source of power that keeps that busy mind churning. In From self to Shabd the author says, “Thoughts come to life when we give them our attention…. Thoughts don’t have a life of their own. By giving attention to our thoughts, we make them come alive…. The more attention we give them, the stronger they become.”3
Saints tell us that our minds carry impressions from millions of lifetimes spent in many different life forms. Not just this one lifetime, but millions of lifetimes have left impressions. With all those impressions stored in our minds, obviously it continually generates images, thoughts, memories, imaginings, desires, feelings. Baba Ji has even said that the negative impulses like anger, lust, greed, and attachment are residual impressions from our lives in lower forms, as animals. Those impulses have no place in human consciousness – but we’re only in the process of becoming truly human. So, it’s a pretty safe bet to say that the mind, left to its own devices, will go on generating thoughts, images and even animal-like impulses.
But do we have to pay attention to them? Can we shift our attention from those thoughts to simran? Can we switch our attention to the Sound? Our attention and our thinking are so tightly bound together that they seem like the same thing. It feels as if our attention is what is doing the thinking. But our attention is one thing, and the mind that is generating thoughts is something else. Our attention actually is different from the mind – something independent, free, powerful.
In From self to Shabd, the author writes: “There is nothing more important in spirituality than to be mindful of where we keep our attention.”4 He quotes Maharaj Charan Singh: “The ageless secret, the ancient wisdom, the path of the saints lies in withdrawing the attention back to this point [the eye centre].”5 Part of the secret that the saints share with us is that we can detach our attention from the activity in our minds. This is the freedom that we have. According to the Masters, it is the only freedom that we have. In this world where everything is destined – as the saints often express it, “Whatever has to happen has already happened” – our one and only freedom is what we do with our attention.
Let’s return to the quote from Great Master. He said that the soul current, in the body, appears in the form of attention. But he also said there were two currents in the body, the second being “the God current, the Word or the Holy Ghost that manifests itself in the form of Shabd or Sound.” So just as he said that the attention is not exactly what the soul is – for us, at this level, the soul appears in the form of attention – similarly, for those whose attention is at the physical level, the vast and powerful current of God, which has brought the whole creation into being, pervades everything, and sustains every atom of the universe – that current manifests itself as Sound. The Sound or Shabd is the aspect of that God current that we can experience while our consciousness is still limited to the physical level.
Baba Ji has also said the Sound is a symbol. It is a pointer. If we give our attention to that Sound – to any sound we hear, no matter how feeble or indistinct – that sound will take us to the reality of what Great Master called the God current. And what is that reality? We’re told that it is love.
Great Master writes: “God is Shabd. God is love. Therefore, Shabd is also love.”6 In Philosophy of the Masters, in the section on “Love,” Great Master often refers to the Shabd as a “current of love.” He talks about how the Lord’s current of love supports and sustains every being.
What is a current? In this world we could think of a current as a small, rippling stream of water, or as a powerful current in a mighty river as it travels thousands of miles to the ocean. Or we might think of the vast currents in the ocean, like the Gulf Stream. A current is something that flows relentlessly in a particular direction. If you jump into a current and don’t fight it, don’t try to swim upstream, don’t grab onto something to hold yourself back, the current takes you where it’s going.
Where does the current of love take us? Great Master says, “The current of love takes one beyond good and evil, belief and unbelief, to a state so sublime that it cannot be described.”7 He is telling us that this current of love, if we just let go and flow with it, will carry us to a sublime state where the world of opposites doesn’t exist, where – we have no idea what we believe or don’t believe. Perhaps we reach a state where we don’t know anything in the traditional intellectual sense.
Baba Ji once was asked: What is Sach Khand? What’s it like? What do we do when we get there? After a long pause he said something like: Have you ever felt happiness? Multiply that times a hundred, a thousand, a million.
What happens when we give our whole attention only to the Sound? Great Master says, “Those who practise Shabd and listen to the Divine Music become oceans of Love. They love everybody and by the currents of this Divine Love radiate a virtuous influence in this world…. The dormant love within our souls can be awakened by the practice of Shabd.”8
Baba Ji has frequently said that love is the core of our being. Sometimes we might think, well, love might be the core of our being, but it is dormant. Great Master assures us that this dormant love is awakened by the practice of Shabd. Actually, he says that giving our attention to that Sound transforms us. It makes us like itself; slowly and slowly, it turns us into what it is: love. And what is the nature of love? Great Master says:
God is Love. He is the Bestower and demands nothing in exchange for His gifts. Similarly, love demands nothing in return. It knows only how to give; hence it is free from all selfishness…. Love inspires generosity and obliterates selfishness, because it has no ulterior motive.”9
So the nature of love is to give, without any expectations. Our meditation is a practice – to give, without any expectations. To give our attention, our time, ourselves to the practice, day after day, never wondering what we’re supposed to get in return.
How do we – selfish beings that we are – acquire this capacity to give without expecting anything back? Great Master explains that listening to the Sound, putting our attention into what he calls the “current of love,” slowly makes us like itself. It awakens in us the capacity to give selflessly, with no expectations.
Think about how Great Master said there are two currents in the body, the soul current and the God current. Or, as experienced at the physical level, there’s the current of attention and the current of Sound. Picture two rivers flowing together, merging – the tiny river of our attention merging into the big river of the Sound. Eventually they would mix and mingle and become indistinguishable. Our soul current would become one with the God current, the current of love.
Great Master says, “God lives in His own latent state of Love, and a lover frees himself from the bondage of the body and life and becomes a form of God.”10 That is the goal of each one of us. The Masters tell us that the current of love is within us, at the core of our being. Even if it is dormant, or buried somewhere we can’t find, it is inherent in us. Our goal is to jump into that current of love and let go, to fix the current of our attention firmly in the Sound and become part and parcel of that current of love.
Great Master tells us that although love is formless, one who realizes love becomes a form of love. He writes:
If and when a rare individual experiences true love, it is manifested in every cell of his body. In other words, it is like seeing the very Lord himself in that manifestation…. If you wish to see Love, then you should meet a lover. Then you will discover its unique currents.”11
- Daryai Lal Kapur, Call of the Great Master, p.150
- Hector Esponda Dubin, From self to Shabd, p.86
- Ibid., p.42
- Ibid., p.43
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Spiritual Discourses, Vol. I, p.181
- Maharaj Sawan Singh, Philosophy of the Masters, Vol. II, p.153
- Ibid., p.163
- Ibid., p.153
- Ibid., p.102
- Ibid., p. 205
- Ibid., p.219