Did you See the Gorilla?

Zen practice disdains the dramatic but rather brings us back to ourselves by treasuring the ordinary, down to earth, and immediate. Its primary emphasis is on allowing the mind to be open to whatever is happening in the moment, to always be prepared to observe whatever comes into awareness, whether it is a product of the mind or appears from the world around us. However, Zen also warns about not permitting distractions to intrude, to not disrupt the mind’s engagement in a creative or problem-solving process. But since distractions are included in the entire flow of spontaneous thoughts, feelings, and impulses that appear in our awareness, how can we be open to that flow if we are supposed to be on guard against distractions?

Several years ago, Harvard and University of Illinois psychologists conducted an experiment to test the premise that people believe that they will see what is in front of them, simply by opening their eyes and looking. A group of volunteers were shown a video of two teams of people passing around a basketball and asked to count the number of passes. In one version, a woman walks through the action in a gorilla suit for about five seconds. In another version, she walks through with an umbrella. The video was shown to several groups. After watching the video, volunteers were asked, “Did you notice anything unusual or odd?”

In most groups, half the people did not see either the gorilla or the woman carrying an umbrella. To them, anything that did not help achieve the difficult task of counting the number of frequently thrown passes was disregarded or not seen. The gorilla and the umbrella woman had been filtered out of awareness, since noticing them would not have helped with the task of counting passes.

There are times in our lives when the intensity of a task in front of us urges us to give it 100% attention, disregarding whatever else may arise in our mind. But along with distractions, which by definition disrupt what we are trying to do, other spontaneous arisings can be important and should not be ignored, such as suddenly remembering something we need to do, or a forgotten piece of information, or an upcoming appointment, or an intuitive insight. Zen practice asks that we enhance our capacity to be attentive so that we do not ignore anything, at the same time recognizing the difference between a distraction and useful information, and responding appropriately.

Our attitude in zazen is characterized by setting aside expectations, simply letting things come and go in our mind, acknowledging all of them. We do this by putting our attention on the immediate in and out flow of our breathe, unconcerned for what will happen next. When we can carry this orientation into daily life, the mind will not be so tempted to construct a picture of how it thinks the world is supposed to be. Without holding on to expectations, we are simply aware of we what we are doing, what is going on around us, and ready for whatever might appear.

Zen practice is focused on the task at hand but not so rigidly that the mind becomes closed to new information that may show up. It is like the batter at home plate purposely keeping his eyes and mind off the pretty girl in the lower box seat while staying intently aware of whatever slight move the pitcher might make to tip off the next pitch. Or the freeway driver who looks straight ahead, stays aware of his speed and the distance between his vehicle and the car ahead, while ready to take into account traffic merging from an on ramp. In these kinds of situations, we may spontaneously see or hear or think of something that is useful for what we are doing.

Things that spontaneously appear in consciousness come from either the mind itself or triggered by external events. If we are free from desire, the arising will not be a distraction: it will be new information, or creative wisdom. But spontaneous things become distractions when they are set in motion by desires. Imagine the pro tennis player who continually glances at her proud and adoring family up in the stands, seeking smiles of admiration. By taking her eye off the ball, she takes herself out of the game.

Distractions become a problem when we do not let them go, when we assign them a level of importance in a situation where they have no relevance. There is no need to be the samurai-mind warrior who frightens away distractions. We should keep our awareness in play, paying attention to whatever appears. If it is not useful to what we should be doing, we let it go, recognizing that it is an expression of some desire. But its appearance may be valuable, something we need to consider that can help us with the task at hand. So the important point is to keep a ready mind, rather than a gatekeeper mind.