When I was six or seven, my parents went on vacation and left my brother and me with the German ironing lady and her husband, neither of whom spoke English. We lived in Augsburg then, on an army base, and employed a local woman to wash, fold, and iron our clothes. She also served as a babysitter from time to time.
The ironing lady and her husband were elderly and unaccustomed to rambunctious children. They lived in a small apartment stuffed with large, dark, polished wooden furniture. One day I was sitting at the dining table with the ironing lady’s husband, who was writing something with a fountain pen. I am not sure how it happened, but my brother was probably napping and I had decided to be both very quiet and very alert. I became utterly absorbed in the experience of listening to the sound of the pen scratching on the parchment, gazing at the old man’s mild face, and sensing my slight weight on the chair in the atmosphere of that cozy, small space. I tasted the flavor of the air, smelled the ink and the old man and the wood and the carpet, and felt a thrilling, exquisite pleasure of curiosity about everything that I was sensing from moment to moment, second to second.
I did not want it ever to end, and sat utterly still, rapt in what I knew to be both profound and ordinary. It was the first time in my life that I realized that simply sitting and paying attention could be enjoyable. It was so easy to be patient, so wonderful and beautiful to experience watching and listening. I felt as though there was a powerful, fragile tension between myself and the old man, and that my very stillness and quietness was part of his writing and thinking and breathing there, across the table from me, the table that I could barely see over, as though in that room at that moment a fantastic energy sprang alive and palpable and real and exciting.
This was a moment of what is called Abhyasa, in the Sütras of Pantanjali. Abhyasa might be described as a measured, calm, yet determined intention to pay attention to what is, as opposed to a wild, rushing and blasting and pushing energy, or the reckless passion with which, for example, a warrior flies into battle, or an athlete dedicates all her energy and power to winning a match or scaling a steep hill. Abhyasa is experience without reaction, awareness without judgment, perception without response.
As I sat with the old man writing, I was stirred, but not stirred into any response other than observing his movements as something to observe. I liked the activity of observation, and became, later, attached to the pleasure I remembered having during this moment. This attachment, of course, became a source of suffering because it was something that I could not will into being, and had to wait for.