Attention is a very delicate and subtle thing. Any slight thinking going on inside and the attention moves to it. You are listening to me and an ant is biting your leg – it is not necessary for your house to be on fire – then for a period of time you become aware of the ant bite and your listening is lost. Your hearing continues but attention is diverted.
Another problem with attention is that it cannot be on two things simultaneously, it is always on one subject at a time. When it moves onto another subject it is immediately removed from the first. It can go on jumping from one to the other – and that is what we do. The ant bit the leg, the attention jumped there; attention came back again and you listened. You felt the sensation of itching, your attention jumped to it; afterwards it came back to hearing again. So there are gaps in the listening when the attention moves elsewhere, and therefore not much clarity in meaning can be found from what you hear because much is lost. Many times the meaning derived by you is your own, because much has been lost; and what you conclude after filling in the gaps is entirely your own.
I have been looking through a book written by a female disciple of Ouspensky. She has written: “When I started working with Ouspensky on spiritual discipline, I was very troubled by one thing that he used to emphasize repeatedly, and I was unable to see the point because there appeared to be nothing in it worth emphasizing. I was also unable to understand why a man like Ouspensky put so much emphasis on such a small matter as this. The man is so wonderful that if he emphasizes something, there has to be some meaning behind it. But my intellect was unable to grasp the meaning. And he would repeat this fifty times a day.
“A disciple may be referring to something Ouspensky had said the day before, saying, ‘Yesterday you said so and so,’ and Ouspensky would immediately stop him and ask him not to say this; at the most he could say that this is what he had understood him to have said yesterday. ‘Don’t say that this is what has been said.’ He would make this remark about every statement – never to say, ‘You said so,’ but say, ‘I understood this from what you said.’“
This disciple has written, “We used to be very troubled. To have to say before every sentence, ‘This is what I had understood; this is what I had understood from what you had said.’ What is the need to do so? Why not simply say that you had said so, and the matter is over.” Slowly she came to understand that these are two separate things.
Only those who have attained to the art of listening can understand what has been said. If you are only hearing, you will understand only what you can understand and not what has been said, because a lot will be lost in between. And that which is lost, you will fill the gaps for yourself – because empty space always gets filled up. You hear, but in between, when your attention moves away, who will fill up those empty spaces? You will do that. Your mind, your memory, your information, your knowledge, your experience will penetrate those gaps. And you will be the creator of the final shape, which is not what has been truly said. The one who said it originally is not responsible for it.