Have you ever paid any attention to the ringing of the temple bells? Now, what do you listen to? To the notes, or to the silence between the notes? If there were no silence, would there be notes? And if you listened to the silence, would not the notes be more penetrating, of a different quality? But you see, we rarely pay real attention to anything; and I think it is important to find out what it means to pay attention. When your teacher is explaining a problem in mathematics, or when you are reading history, or when a friend is talking, telling you a story, or when you are near the river and hear the lapping of the water on the bank, you generally pay very little attention; and if we could find out what it means to pay attention, perhaps learning would then have quite a different significance and become much easier.
When your teacher tells you to pay attention in class, what does he mean? He means that you must not look out of the window, that you must withdraw your attention from everything else and concentrate wholly on what you are supposed to be studying. Or, when you are absorbed in a novel, your whole mind is so concentrated on it that for the moment you have lost interest in everything else. That is another form of attention. So, in the ordinary sense, paying attention is a narrowing-down process, is it not?
Now, I think there is a different kind of attention altogether. The attention which is generally advocated, practised or indulged in is a narrowing-down of the mind to a point, which is a process of exclusion. When you make an effort to pay attention, you are really resisting something—the desire to look out of the window, to see who is coming in, and so on. Part of your energy has already gone in resistance. You build a wall around your mind to make it concentrate completely on a particular thing, and you call this the disciplining of the mind to pay attention. You try to exclude from the mind every thought but the one on which you want it to be wholly concentrated. That is what most people mean by paying attention. But I think there is a different kind of attention, a state of mind which is not exclusive, which does not shut out anything; and because there is no resistance, the mind is capable of much greater attention. But attention without resistance does not mean the attention of absorption.
The kind of attention which I would like to discuss is entirely different from what we usually mean by attention, and it has immense possibilities because it is not exclusive. When you concentrate on a subject, on a talk, on a conversation, consciously or unconsciously you build a wall of resistance against the intrusion of other thoughts, and so your mind is not wholly there; it is only partially there, however much attention you pay, because part of your mind is resisting any intrusion, any deviation or distraction.
Let us begin the other way round. Do you know what distraction is? You want to pay attention to what you are reading, but your mind is distracted by some noise outside and you look out of the window. When you want to concentrate on something and your mind wanders off, the wandering off is called distraction, then part of your mind resists the so-called distraction, and there is a waste of energy in that resistance. Whereas, if you are aware of every movement of the mind from moment to moment, then there is no such thing as distraction at any time and the energy of the mind is not wasted in resisting something. So it is important to find out what attention really is.
If you listen both to the sound of the bell and to the silence between its strokes, the whole of that listening is attention. Similarly, when someone is speaking, attention is the giving of your mind not only to the words but also to the silence between the words. If you experiment with this you will find that your mind can pay complete attention without distraction and without resistance. When you discipline your mind by saying, “I must not look out of the window, I must not watch the people coming in, I must pay attention even though I want to do something else”, it creates a division which is very destructive because it dissipates the energy of the mind. But if you listen comprehensively so that there is no division and therefore no form of resistance then you will find that the mind can pay complete attention to anything without effort. Do you see it? Am I making myself clear?
Surely, to discipline the mind to pay attention is to bring about its deterioration—which does not mean that the mind must restlessly wander all over the place like a monkey. But, apart from the attention of absorption, these two states are all we know. Either we try to discipline the mind so tightly that it cannot deviate, or we just let it wander from one thing to another. Now, what I am describing is not a compromise between the two; on the contrary, it has nothing to do with either. It is an entirely different approach; it is to be totally aware so that your mind is all the time attentive without being caught in the process of exclusion.
From Chapter 17, This Matter of Culture, J. Krishnamurti