A student asked, "Please write something of great wisdom for me." The master wrote one word: "Attention."
The student said, "Is that all?" The master wrote, "Attention. Attention."
The student became irritable, so the master finally wrote, “Attention. Attention. Attention.”
In frustration, the student finally demanded, "What does this word 'attention' mean?" The master simply replied, "Attention means attention."
This is a typical Zen story, employing mental sleight of hand in order to jolt our perspective and shake us out of our work-a-day complacency. In this case, the story points out “pointing out.” It is forcing us to pay attention to the importance of attention itself.
Like the student, we probably find the idea of attention to be a bit of a letdown. Where's the drama, the “great wisdom?” Attention sounds exceedingly simple, dry and uninteresting. Cool clothes are exciting. Having a stock double in two months is exciting. Getting recognized in a crowd is exciting. Attention seems more like wearing sweatpants at a Hollywood premiere. Yet attention might be the most important step in sane, practical, money management.
Attention is simple enough. It's looking directly at the reality of your life in any given moment, experiencing the sensations, sounds and thoughts as clearly as you can. Attention is fully feeling.
Just as important is what attention is not. It's not judgments, evaluations, decisions or commentary. Attention is the basic awareness of what you experience before all of the noise and static begin to color perception. Decisions and critiques can come later. Withholding judgment gets us closer to the visceral reality of our lives with some interesting consequences.
Attention provides information — lots of it. We often purposefully ignore facts. You may not want to know how much you spend each month. You may be scared to know. You might be wrapped up in judging, feeling guilty or experience some other reaction.
Attention is simply looking at the spending while leaving the judgments for later. See how much you really spend this month. Let it be OK. It is what it is. Take a breath (or many breaths). Let the reality of it settle in. Digest the numbers. Then think about what to do. You can make much better decisions with real information.
In a similar fashion, attention provides self-knowledge, such as how you feel around money issues. Do you spend to impress people? To impress yourself? Does spending give you a thrill? Is it exciting? Is there shame in having money? Or not having enough?
These emotional questions are hugely important since even the most rational, fact-based financial planning is easily sabotaged by impulsive decisions driven by our emotions. Buying or selling investments while under the influence of the routine emotional swings of the markets, for example, is a distressingly common trap which is cited as the primary reason that individual investors dramatically underperform market averages.
Attention also embodies a relaxation into life and an acceptance of what you see. Acceptance can provide a buffer between an impulse and acting on that impulse. Before springing for an expensive purchase which you can’t really afford, for instance, attention can provide a moment’s pause. This may be all it takes for the power of the impulse to pass and to allow you to make a better choice.
The alternative to attention is distraction and avoidance. Don’t pay attention to the bills. Don’t balance the checkbook. Don’t really think about the interest you are paying on the credit cards. Remaining oblivious to the motivations behind your habitual patterns. Burying your head in the sand only leads to more confusion. Nothing good here.
Thich Naht Hahn, a well-known, contemporary Zen teacher, rephrased a core Buddhist guideline for modern times. He called it "mindful consumption" referring not only to economic consumption but all types of consumption including what we consume into our bodies and into our minds. He suggests that simply paying attention to all of the ways we consume is very powerful practice, contributing to more thoughtful, better informed choices and a happier life in general.
Lastly, attention itself is fundamentally satisfying. It brings us closer to the reality of our lives. Attention increases the saturation of our experience, allowing us to more fully enjoy the richness of music and sounds, the varied sensations of the body and emotions, the rolling tableaus of the mind. This more direct connection, even when it may be unpleasant, seems to be inherently more satisfying and fulfilling.
Attention is simply attention but the effect of attention is anything but simple. Most people will admit that they feel better knowing what is going on than not knowing. Give it a try.
Paul Norr is a holistic financial planner in Thousand Oaks, California, and writes about Authentic Money Matterstm . His website is www.paulnorr.com.