"Tell me to what you pay attention and I will tell you who you are."
- José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955)
This is central to the teaching of Zen Buddhism, but one does not need to be a Buddhist or, for that matter, a student of Zen to implement it into your daily life.
If you are like most people, your mind is very noisy. You have a constant flood of thoughts and ideas and prejudices about all sorts of things that come unbidden to modify each thought. Particularly in Western culture, this process does not slow down, but increases exponentially throughout life. Eventually, you reach a point where you can no longer truly pay total attention to anything.
Sit back and think about that for a moment, and notice how you will probably immediately agree or disagree with this statement. Where did that come from? It came from the building blocks your ego has created to be able to assess something quickly and effortlessly without fully paying attention to it. Notice too, how if you do just sit and think about what I have said for a minute or two, how many other intrusive thoughts will force their way into your conscious mind during that short time. Some call this human intelligence or the power of cognition. I simply call it noise.
Your noisy mind is a distraction. How often do you think about the automatic things you do? Do you respond like Pavlov's dog when the phone rings, and answer it with a question? Do you think about driving a car or do you daydream and/or distract yourself with music or talking on the phone? Take a moment to think about the things you do automatically. There are plenty of little things and some big things, I'm sure.
This trend increases based on the complexity of the mind in question. The more complex the mind, the more powerful the internal image of ego, and the more forceful and invasive the chatter of many thoughts.
Many people remember sharp and clear images of certain things they observed as a child. This is no accident. As a child, most people are fascinated with the newness of the world, and have plenty of attention to devote to the simplest thing. As we grow older, many things distract us. Our life goals, wondering if that attractive man or woman likes you, how you are going to spend your weekend, or even what you are going to have for lunch, not to mention invasive memories of things past. These things are important, but not to the point of forgetting that you are trying to live a life in the present. You are here now. You are not in the past or future and never will be.
The way most people should behave is to live in the now. This transcends any dogmatic or cultural teachings and is not a question of ethics or other philosophy. You are here, so why not devote yourself to it fully? Lose yourself in the act of what you are doing. Pay attention to the details of life without getting lost in dreaming.
This takes a lot of practice to complete, but you can start it today. Stop what you are doing and look around you. Look at your coffee, the steering wheel of your car, or any other object or activity. Devote yourself to it fully, as if it is the only thing in existence. Many people might think this to be a waste of time, but we have finite time in this world, and to spend it on autopilot or worrying about needless things is the true waste.
Today, spiritual teachers, new age people, and self-help specialists speak of "Be here now." This is not new, but has been spoken for thousands of years. It unquestionably improves ones quality of life and brings appreciation for the minute details of the world around us.
There is also an old adage that reads, "Ignorance is bliss." This is not strictly true, but perhaps would be better phrased as "Simplicity is bliss." Ignorance is never something to embrace, but simplicity can be. The more complex your mind, the more difficult this may be to achieve. You may need to work at it longer, but it is well worth the time spent. Take a deep breath and think about that breath. Read the bottom of your cups or bowls, and think about the places the many items in your house are made. Do little things that mean nothing.
Most of all, enjoy being alive. You'll regret it if you don't.