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Saturday, 22 August 2020

The power and puzzle of attention

 John Alexandra, author of The Wisdom of Being, talks about attention:

 Can you pay attention? It is a payment. Make no mistake. Intentional attention, that is. But first, we need to define it.

There are three kinds of attention. Directed. Attracted. And Dispersed.  

Dispersed attention: is when our wits are wool-gathering. The mind daydreams or is in neutral, with every stray thought running through it. The earworm of a popular tune. The remembered conversation. A recalled scene. In this state, you walk into a room and can't remember what you intended to do there.

Attracted attention: is the type that occupies most of our lives. It could be quite useful and productive. You work at your computer but completely vanish into the job, concerned with the next click. Hours pass. You say you are concentrating. In fact, you are subsumed into the activity ─ a function of it. Not there at all.

Or you watch TV and completely vanish into the program. The moving wallpaper on the screen occupies you entirely. If it is particularly soporific, your attention changes to dispersed and soon you are dozing or asleep.

But generally, your mind is occupied constantly with uncontrollable fixations on people, situations and events. What she said to me. Why they're not giving me a raise? My receding hairline. How X can afford a better car than mine? Heartburn or angina? How to fool my wife into thinking I'm at a meeting when I'm shacked up with my secretary? A million concerns ─ leading to resentments, expectations, fears, regrets, affronts, anxieties, forebodings, envy, anger… 

This we dignify as thinking. In fact it is reaction ─ the attention attracted by a hundred useless things. In this state, we are not individuals. Just mechanisms. Machines. But, of course, we never admit it. Because to see this clearly would lacerate our precious ego.

Directed or Intentional attention: is rarer than hen's teeth. It is when the mind is silent and aware. This state is never automatic and requires long and careful training, then constant, voluntary vigilance. In other words, an effort of will. To be intentional, I need to be behind my manifestations and not affected by anything external. I can no longer just exist. I need to be here. And this level of alertness demands psychological death. 

Perhaps, in a moment of despair or self-loathing, you’ve attempted to stop your thoughts and noticed that they never stop. Because the next moment you are thinking of stopping your thoughts or plagued with the thought behind the thought. Sometimes it is possible to stay for a moment in the space between two thoughts, but the mechanism never flags. You can't stop thought by taking thought because thought is the problem ─ the net. 

So what in you, in me, can possibly put a stick in the spokes enough to stop them?
Nothing less than death in the moment. The death of everything I value as myself.
If I can climb down in myself to the point where I am content to be just nothing, possibilities begin. The energy wasted by thinking begins to accumulate elsewhere in the body. I begin to fill up. And that process is so interesting that for a moment I exist on the knife-edge of pure observation. Sensation/intuition/insight become physically present and for a few breaths I am nothing ─ but I AM. Yet even that is imprecise. 

There is no 'I' there. 

Just AM.

And, next moment, I think again and am dispersed. 

But if I can experience that insight once, I will have an impression that is irrefutable.  Something I cannot deny. An objective experience that is true.

And perhaps, if I really wish for something, I can come to it again.

All true things begin as flashes. But to make them consistent takes intentional effort over years. Perhaps over lifetimes, some say.

You can find John's book on Buzzword

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