Pleasures of Art Are Pleasures of Focus

Photo: Thanks to Alpay Tonga on Unsplash!

Most people are no longer able to enjoy simple pleasures.

A friend whom I interviewed for a book told me how, when he managed a small health food store, he hated stocking, but when he began to do it with sole focus, lining up the cans just right, he found that it brought him pleasure.

Oddly, the brain centers where deep focus is localized are where certain kinds of calm joy also live.

I remember being bored out of my skull while waiting at a mall for a friend, and discovering that by paying one-pointed attention to one thing, the time passed very enjoyably.

At 78, I spend the hour from 4:30 to 5:30 a.m. singing – the more enjoyably, the more I can sing with an undistracted mind.

I once had a picture book about a Zen monastery in Japan. At first I thought the extreme emphasis on mental concentration was a little over the top — was it really so important to eat every last grain of rice in the bowl? Or to go to the market with one-pointed attention?

Now, years later, I understand. When I edit words for a client, or write my own stuff, or sing or take photographs, or shoot video, my best work comes when I can keep my innards under control — set personal emotions aside and offer self to the higher guidance of God. No need to be unnatural about it; it’s the simple art of joyful living.

I caught myself the other day at Whole Foods going about my business with deep, Zen-like attention. It was enjoyable to escape the gravitational pull of the “ten thousand things” for a time and find my own center while swimming safely past the whirlpool.

In my work, one of my jobs is to edit talks by Asha Nayaswami for eventual publication in books. “Big, fat books” as she calls them. I find the work enjoyable, I think in no small part because it requires unrelenting focus while I go over the words again and again, perhaps twenty times until a chapter is ready to post on the web.

Asha talked recently about how the spiritual path is about the struggle to pull attention away from the maelstrom into which most of the world has fallen, and bring it back inside. As Lahiri Mahasaya said, “The only duty that has been given to mankind is to listen to the inner sounds.’

I find it’s not easy to do while I’m at Whole Foods where fast-paced people are zooming around blind corners with their overloaded carts, and lousy music blares.

What helps most, I find, is dwelling on how much better I feel in those quiet moments when I am able to go inside. As Lahiri put it, meditation is “ enjoying the moments when the breath naturally ceases to flow.”

In short, the path is smritti: remembering. The more focus I bring to everything — singing, writing, being with others — the better I’m able to find calm joy while swimming in the stream.

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