Taking It Uptown

(by Stan Koehler) 

Urban Destruction

Since the word meditation is a pejorative in my neighborhood, Spanish Harlem, I, or one of the crew like Jonathan,  usually begins by asking whatever group that we’re in front  of; “How many of you have been told that you don’t pay attention?”  After everyone raises their hand or says some assenting sound, they’re asked; “Has anyone been taught how to pay attention?”  The usual response is a loud, No!

Well that’s what we’re here to do, to teach you how to pay attention, to focus, to notice what’s going on on the street, what bodega not to walk in front of, what gang to avoid.  That’s really all that meditation is, learning to pay attention, practicing paying attention, initially to a single point, a breath, a mantra, a point of focus.  Eventually, there is just the witness to the moment and then the witness, what is witnessed and the act of witnessing is just; not here, not there, is just…

But I get ahead of myself; neither Jonathan, Diego, I nor anyone else on the crew, is going to take this conversation beyond having a sharp enough focus, being able to pay attention enough, not to walk into a dangerous situation, get a better job, finish high school.

In 1982 I walked into my first Rama seminar at the Unitarian Church in San Francisco.  What Rama taught me was to pay attention.  Everything else was commentary.  Pay attention.  Pay attention to my thoughts.  Pay attention to how I am dressed.  Pay attention to what I bring into my mind.  Pay attention to my career; as a matter of fact, pay attention to every detail of the tonal. 

And to what end?  To develop the personal power to see what is real.  This brings us back to the average student that we work with – somewhere between 16 and 35, might or might not have a GED – usually lives in the projects, often has a kid.  It really is an issue of personal power – the personal power to appear in court on a minor citation so it doesn’t turn into a warrant; the personal power to maintain an ‘act as if’ during a stop and frisk; the personal power to get a job that pays more than minimum wage.  And meditation – attention training – definitely helps.

Paying attention, noticing the feelings, the thoughts, the details.  It’s really all the same. We learn to meditate in order to see what is real not to take us to some esoteric heaven realm.  As the Heart Sutra says, “Form is exactly Emptiness, Emptiness is exactly Form.”… “There is no suffering, no craving, no extinction, no path, no wisdom and no attainment.  Indeed, there is nothing to be attained.”   

Once I give up attachment to attainment I can be attentive to the quality of the light at sunset, signing a contract at a 20% better rate than expected, crossing Lexington Ave without being jumped by the Latin Kings.  Personal power and recognizing the nature of attainment – not a contradiction but perhaps the subject or another blog.