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.


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 


What suits you better?

To simplify is to lie. And yet, understanding a lie is better than misunderstanding the truth. Simplifying it, we’ll say that several thousand years ago, a people living in what we now call Ukraine spoke a beautiful and complex language. The people domesticated horses, rode wheel wagons, traveled and migrated, thereby spreading its culture and language. But in the spreading, the language became transformed into a hundred other languages, as varied as Sanskrit and Greek, Latin and Russian, Portuguese and German. The original language itself disappeared, and all we have left are the transformations.

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We can’t prove this, but we can argue for it using indirect evidence, mostly by comparing different languages, and also by using some genetics and some archaeology.

For instance, the words for numbers one to ten are very similar in disparate languages. Is this a crazy, crazy coincidence, or do the disparate languages come from a shared root?

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This hypothetical language for which we don’t have hard evidence is called Proto-Indo-European—that is, a language that was the “prototype” for many languages spoken in Europe and in India. Some of these languages are now dead, and others are alive and well, thank you very much . . . like, you know, English, for chrissakes.

Misleading as it may seem, this post isn’t about the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It’s about the things we believe in, and the reasons why we believe them.

“Do you believe in a Supreme Being?” It’s perhaps more constructive to ask the question like this: “What suits you better, to believe in a Supreme Being or not to believe in a Supreme Being?” What suits you better, to believe in a hopeful future or to believe in doom? What suits you better, to believe that animals have self-awareness or that they're a bundle of reflexes? What suits you better, to believe that mathematics is exciting or boring? If you adamantly affirm that mathematics is boring, you’re saying that at least for now it suits you better to believe that mathematics is boring. You're making a statement about yourself, not the thing or person or idea in question. And this is inevitable: any one thing is what you make of it, and the "you" in it is primary, the "thing" is secondary.

It suits me to believe in the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis. It stimulates my imagination, it leads me to seek connections among words and among languages, it invites me to study history and geography and linguistics. In my head trip (my subjective response, informed by my subjective filters), this ancestral language was deeply rooted in nature and full of symbolic dimensions born of the mysteries of existence. No, I can’t prove any of it; no, I don’t know what I'm talking about; yes, I like believing in it because it gives me—here, now!—a feeling of rootedness and integration.

Suppose the Proto-Indo-European hypothesis will be debunked one of these days: a geologist or a psychiatrist or an albino raccoon from outer space will demonstrate that the hypothesis is a fabrication, a delusion, a HOAX! It’s not going to change anything for me. I’ll carry on believing in it, because I like it; it’s meaningful to me, it’s beautiful, just beautiful.

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As you can see, the speculative and hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root for the word "beauty" is related to the idea of reverence. It proves!—beyond a shade of doubt!—how poetic and integrative our ancestral language was! (It proves no such thing, of course; I'm having a head trip and enjoying myself, and teasing myself about how silly I am at the same time that I state an actual belief of mine. Exclamation marks are obligatory when you're incoherent and drunk-happy.) 

Your beliefs may be completely different from mine, but you and I are alike in that we believe what suits us, temperamentally and culturally. From hard facts, from soft facts, from un-facts and anti-facts we build our personal narratives through filters of which we aren't always aware. Let's respect the facts, acknowledge the filters, and assume full ownership of our beliefs.

©2018, Pedro de Alcantara