Attention in Speech
Writings | Basics, Training, Life

“Then you should say what you mean,” the March Hare went on.

“I do,” Alice hastily replied; “at least — I mean what I say — that’s the same thing, you know.”

“Not the same thing a bit!” said the Hatter. “Why, you might just as well say that ‘I see what I eat’ is the same thing as ‘I eat what I see’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the March Hare, “that ‘I like what I get’ is the same thing as ‘I get what I like’!”

“You might just as well say,” added the Dormouse, who seemed to be talking in his sleep, “that ‘I breathe when I sleep’ is the same thing as ‘I sleep when I breathe’!”

Poor Alice! A seemingly insignificant transposition of words and her three companions at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party can’t correct her fast enough.

Strangely, or perhaps not so strangely, I find the same confusion arising over and over again in meditation practice and efforts at attention in our lives.

We need to make a distinction between what effort we make and what comes out of that effort. For instance, when we make an effort to return to the breath and we make that effort over and over again, something comes of that effort. What is that something? It’s an increasing ability to rest in attention, to rest aware of what is going on outside and inside of us, without our being distracted by sights, sounds or other external sensations, or by thoughts, feelings, and other internal experiences. To join in the verbal antics of our friends from Alice in Wonderland, “I breathe to cultivate attention” which, of course, is quite different from “I cultivate attention to breathe.” (The latter would be an extremely problematic state of affairs. None of us would be alive for long.)

Most people, after a fair amount of trial and error, find how to rest with the breath and gradually become aware of the growth of attention in themselves. What we learn is that, apart from the effort to come back to the breath, there is nothing that we can do to cultivate attention and develop mindfulness. The process of developing attention consists of one single principle: returning to attention whenever we notice we are distracted.

Practice is like cultivating a plant. We create the conditions in which our plant can grow. Whenever we notice the conditions aren’t right, we correct them.

As T.S. Eliot writes in Four Quartets:

And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.


This last line is key. “The rest is not our business.” The attention that forms can not really be called “ours”. It does not belong to the web of habituated patterns that comprise our personality and much of our experience. Yet, in a deeper sense, it is truly ours: it is our human heritage. The effort of our practice, the effort that Eliot describes, is to reclaim what we have lost, to uncover what we are. For us in the grip of habitual patterns, there is only this effort. What comes of it is not up to us.

The simplicity of this principle, returning to what is already there, is deceptive. It seems so simple, but it is extremely difficult to put into practice. Often our attempts to rest with the breath feel a bit like the White Queen’s rule about jam:

“It’s very good jam,” said the Queen.

“Well, I don’t want any jam today, at any rate.”

“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said. “The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday–but never jam today.”

“It must come sometimes to ‘jam today,’ ” Alice objected.

“No, it can’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day; today isn’t any other day, you know.”

Our relationship with our breath can feel a lot like that jam. Still, we make the effort, despite the difficulty and seeming fruitlessness. After a while, we realize that there is nothing to do but to make the effort.

Another reason that this effort is deceptive in its simplicity is that it applies in so many areas: when the conditions aren’t right for attention, we re-establish them. In our daily lives, we constantly lose attention, lose mindfulness, and fall into reactivity. At such times, we don’t really know what we are doing in the same way that when we are distracted, we don’t really know what we are thinking about. We only come to know that when attention returns, when the distraction has dissolved. In our daily lives then, we only know here and there what we have done or what we are really doing. Still, all we need to do to change this is to observe what we do. The act of observing itself initiates a process of transformation.

Many people try very hard to always say the right thing. There is a common misconception that we can know how to say the right thing, that we can have it in mind and then, when we speak, the words will come out correctly. This is the common idea of right speech. And most of us fail at it over and over again. The words don’t come out as we thought they would. Or if they do, the tone of voice is wrong. Or something else happens. It rarely goes as we planned. That’s the point. It rarely goes as we planned. We cannot plan the future. We cannot plan our speech anymore than we can plan our next thought. Whatever we are thinking now is past when it comes time to speak. How, then, are we to practice right speech?

The problem arises as a result of the confusion noted at the beginning of these notes. Right speech isn’t a practice. It is the result of an effort. The effort is to apply the principle of our meditation practice to the way we speak. We bring attention to our speech. Any idea we may have of right speech, or what is right to say in a given situation, is just that, an idea. Ideas and concepts are generally born from our habituated patterns and are almost always at odds with the situation itself. The idea we have of what we should say is almost always inaccurate. So, what do we do?

The most effective effort is to listen to ourselves as we are talking. This effort brings attention to our speech. When we do this, we will hear when what we say doesn’t fit the situation, when it isn’t what we intended to say, or how we intended to say it. We will hear, with our own ears, the different emotional patterns that take over our speech. We will hear how what we say doesn’t fit with our intention, how it comes out of our confusion, how it doesn’t quite fit with the situation. And as we make this effort over and over again, we will find that we begin to speak with attention in exactly the same way that we come to breath with attention in our meditation. This is how we practice right speech.

In her adventures in Wonderland, Alice is constantly confused by the words of the characters that she meets. She finds her own speech untrustworthy as she tries to recite poems that she thought she knew, but the words come out all wrong. Finally, she has had enough and speaks directly out of her experience, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!” Immediately, her dream dissolves and she wakes up. So it is for us. When we speak with attention, we come to experience our world clearly. Everything changes. It will never be the same.