Attention Must Be Paid

What do Medea, medicine, modesty, and meditation have in common? They come from the same linguistic root.

If you like stretching words beyond their intended limits, then you say that meditation is medicine. Taking appropriate measures (meditation) makes you feel good (medicine). Interestingly, “appropriate measures” means at least two different things: necessary steps, correct measurements.

I’ve just finished a week-long meditation that I found quite medicinal. From 12:01 AM on Sunday, May 26 to 11:59 PM on Saturday June 1 I decided not to jaywalk. For seven days, for 168 hours, for 10.080 minutes, for 604.800 seconds I’d cross the streets in Paris according to a strict interpretation of the anti-jaywalking ordnances. I’d only cross where a crossing was indicated; I’d only cross when the light was green for me; I’d only cross by walking inside the grid of zebra stripes.

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Let’s start with an informal definition of jaywalking: crossing the street in a way you shouldn’t. Should and shouldn’t vary from culture to culture, and from person to person within a culture. Believe it or not, there’s a Vienna Convention on Road Traffic containing Rules applicable to pedestrians. Believe it or not, Great Britain doesn’t have jaywalking laws; pedestrians are trusted to make their own judgments regarding the safety of crossing. Believe it or not, France has extremely complicated jaywalking laws, which—this we can all believe—nobody follows. Here’s the voice of Wikipedia:

Pedestrians [in France] are required to use sidewalks (if any), and zebra crossings for crossing street if there is one within 50 m; they also must cross perpendicularly to the road axis, only cross a place or intersection if some zebra allows, cross only at the green walker light if one exist, and obey a policeman if one is there regulating crossing. More rules apply at night, alongside countryside roads, to groups of marching people, etc. Disregarding those rules may be punished by a fine of the lowest grade ("contravention de la première classe,” 11 to 17€, or 33€ if paid late), but few people were ever fined for such behavior, usually because they showed contempt instead of apologizing or providing some legit safety reason. On the other hand, car drivers must always let pedestrians cross if they have already started, even when the pedestrians disregarded the rules, and drivers will bear full responsibility if an accident occurs. These rules are often not respected; most pedestrians would cross anywhere (including at red walker light) when no car can be seen nearby on the road, but would not take the chance to cross even on zebra when a car is coming, until it stops.

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The purpose of my non-jaywalking week, though, wasn’t legal or sociocultural. I wanted to decide to pay attention to something, and to become able to follow through on my own decision. In other words, I wanted to become mindful, alert, in control of my reactions to the environment, focused, centered, good-looking, and rich.

I failed, of course.

The very first morning of my meditation, I went to the street market down the block from home and shopped in my usual manner. After 45 minutes of visiting stands, chatting with the friendly sellers, and packing two heavy bags full of delicious fresh foods, I started home. And it was only when I was half-way across the street that I realized I was jaywalking. I mean, the zebra crossing was half a block away! Did you really expect me to carry TWO HEAVY BAGS for HALF A BLOCK MORE than STRICTLY NECESSARY? Huh, did you, did you?

Yes, I expected that of myself, since I had decided to pay attention to it.

Another time, I found myself standing at the corner, no traffic coming from anywhere. And I just . . . waited. I waited for the light to change from red to green, for the little stick figure to go from standing impatiently to walking joyfully. It took forever. Later I went back to that same corner and recorded the wait. If you’d like to meditate for 51 seconds, watch the little stick figure change from green to red to green (and turn the sound on, okay?). Look at it; keep looking at it; you just need to look at it, that’s all. What’s the big deal?

It is a big deal. It takes discipline! presence of mind! forbearance! dignity! wisdom! Out of the seven and a half billion people on this planet, only the Dalai Lama could stand there for all eternity and not wish to check his emails, not wish for things to be other than they are, not wish harm upon other human beings JUST BECAUSE THE LIGHT IS RED.

At another occasion, I was out strolling with my wife when she started telling me about a colleague of hers with some group-dynamics difficulties. So-and-so #1 was fighting So-and-so #2. I became absorbed and invested. Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll! I took the side of #2 against #1! It was my fight, I can tell you that!

And I jaywalked. When I caught myself in the act of jaywalking because my head was in a fight where it didn’t belong, I threw a little tantrum. I had forgotten my meditation, my commitment, my Dalai-lama-o-rama. And I was unhappy about it.

The only thing worse than forgetting your commitment is to throw a tantrum because you forgot your commitment. It may take longer to heal from the tantrum than to heal from the forgetfulness.

Shall we simplify things until they’re as digestible as a spoonful of boiled white rice? In this life, you can either pay attention or not pay attention. And that’s it. What you pay attention to, how you do it, why you do it: this is who you are. Nobody else plays attention to the same things that you do, in the same way and for the same reasons. Any one change in your life, for better or for worse, is a change in your attention, in its what-how-why. And when; let’s not forget the when, which is preferably right now. And the where, which is preferably right here.

Paying attention to the crosswalk brought untold delights into my existence. Perhaps next week I’ll pay attention to my breathing. Or how I sit at the computer. Or how I swallow each sip of coffee. Or how I . . . never mind; the subject of the meditation isn’t the most important thing; what counts is your putting your mind to it, willingly and with a glad heart.

©2019, Pedro de Alcantara 

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