To be responsible means properly to respond, to answer. All I can possibly do, as a matter of fact all I am doing, is responding, responding to my existence. What really defines and shows us a man is his response. If there is for me the slightest possible choice in the midst of operating laws, whether from hazard or necessity, is it not in the way I respond—that is, in the quality of my participation in all that is given to me through the immediate experience of my life?
Let us be clear that my genuine responsiveness is not to be found in any of the formal responses that my programed computer never fails to produce. It has to be sought beyond that. It is an intentional act of knowing, which has a singular capacity for freedom since it can exist beyond my “formal” conditioning. This primary, free response is my attention. My attention is my own and fundamental answer to my existence. It is both my response and what I can be responsible for. An opening as well as an engagement, it is my becoming present to what is, it is hic et nunc my participating in the actuality of being. Arising as a basic act of knowing through actual being, my attention is simultaneously awakening to myself and to the world. All the rest, I mean all the other responses which are formal, all my acting out, all my outward manifestations proceed, so to say, by themselves, depending in their quality on the quality of my attention.
The idea of quality of attention is not familiar to us, nor is the idea of different possible levels of attention. But this would need an elaboration we cannot make here. Let us just say that our attention is much more than we generally think. It is much more than a simple mental or cerebral mechanism. It concerns our whole being...
Paradoxically this basic act of knowing, which is attention, is only actualized when we don’t know—that is, when there is a question. Its level and, so to say, its degree of “totalization” are proportional to our questioning. You have surely noticed that when a question is vital—when it takes us in the guts, as you say—it suspends all unnecessary movements, emotional and physical as well as mental. It clears the way for real awareness and sensitivity, which are components of my total power of attention. It is only between my not knowing and my urge to know that I find myself present, mobilized, open, new—that is to say, attentive.
Attention in its active form is therefore inseparable from interrogation; it is essentially, in its purity, an act of questioning. This act is the privilege of our human existence. An animal contents itself with being. The responsibility of man is to question himself on the meaning of his being.
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These excerpts are from, On The Way To Self Knowledge, edited by Jacob Needleman & Dennis Lewis, NY: A. Knopf, 1976, pp. 57–58.
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Featured: Fall 2013 Issue, Vol. XII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2013