What We Lean Towards

This might have become part of a talk I had been planning to give in England, to the Hebden Bridge group, this evening – though I allow myself longer words and fuller sentences in this written version:

Memories of London sometimes permeate my thinking, and in those memories, the depths of the city’s past make themselves more fully known perhaps than when I lived there. Reading Hilary Mantel‘s evocations of Tudor London helped bring all this to the fore.

For a short while, I used to teach English to a Japanese businessman in a tall building at Moorgate. I thought of Moorgate primarily as a tube station, and one with a grisly history, as there had been a fatal crash there when I was young.

Of course Moorgate was one of the gates in the wall around the old city; there is even an adjacent street named London Wall to reinforce the point. I seem to remember a space around there called the Tenter Grounds – or maybe there was just a sign commemorating those, as I don’t find any such modern map reference in that location (there are Tenter Streets between Aldgate and the Tower of London).

I remember how pleased I was back then to connect for myself this etymology with tenterhooks – and even plain old tents. It took Jenny Odell’s book to add attention to that family of words.

All of which is an elaborate way to introduce these two passages. Both speak to the processes spelled out in the Heart Sutra (form – sensation – percepton – formation -consciousness) – spelled out in the sense of being negated, as none of them is self-existent. Attention is one of the cornerstones of our practice, and many people who have sat an extended sesshin or retreat will recognise the deep level of looking and attention-giving described here:

‘Battered, blue, durable, unprepossessing – already obsolete some might say. Square on the bottom with a rounded top and a squeaky pull-down handle that needs a certain decisiveness to open and close, it was something I’ve often used but had never at any time given the kind of close examingation that it in fact – what? needed, deserved, wanted? Wanted – that seemed as close to it as anything. I was at the moment wide-awake in a way that reached out in all directions. Awareness and attention had been intensified, reorganised, redeployed, and I was abruptly eager to know more.

That was one thing. Yet, inanimate as it remained, it seemed in the same moment almost as if the mailbox, too, were reaching out in my direction, that it was broadcasting on a wavelength I wasn’t normally tuned to, and that when I listened as well as looked, if that was the right way of putting it, let me understand that it was as eager as I was, and pleased to have its role and purpose and its previously overlooked impressiveness better known and securely remembered. But there was more than one role or function involved, as I could already make out. On the one hand, it was just a few cubic feet of public space set aside and protected – from the elements, from any marauders – so that out-going mail could accumulate for several hours. On the other hand, it was the near end of a global force, and energy stream in constant motion and powered by millions of workers in all countries that can redistribute envelopes and packages to any spot in the world.’ (In Motion – Tony Hiss)

‘It’s a commonplace that we only see what we’re looking for, but this idea of information that makes it into our brains without being admitted into our consciousness seemed to explain the eeriness of suddenly seeing something that has been there all along. For instance, the many times I had walked down Grove Street after a symphony performance, noises has presumably been making it into my ears and were being processed; after all, I wasn’t physiologically hard of hearing. It was the performance of the John Cage piece, or rather its attunement of my attention, that provided the “key” for those sounds to pass through the “gate” toward conscious perception.’ (How To Do Nothing – Jenny Odell)

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