The crux of this whole inadvertent series of writings is giving attention to words that resonate in my head, revealing themselves as very potent portals to understanding particular dire or confusing situations I wind myself up in. Now I seem to be at a point where the word ‘attention’ itself needs some attention, some fleshing out for further comprehension, as I’ve noticed it to be one of the most beneficial functions of the mind in terms of aiding development in ways most fruitful to my greater goals, or, even discovering what my true goals are. Before, I’d never really acknowledged attention as a skill, something capable of practice and cultivation. To be honest, I hadn’t been able to do much thinking on it at all, despite needing to use it for almost everything in my conscious life, sort of how daily events like teeth brushing or work commuting sink into mundane grooves that the mind glosses over in its lazy axiomizing. Its subtle functioning was so overwhelming that only recently have I been able to zoom out on it and observe its mechanics.
First off, there are connotations to ‘attention’ that I think divert from its basic meaning. Warning signs, for instance, that have ‘ATTENTION!’ heading a bright backdrop, send alarming tones that I think don’t belong in ‘attention.’ Attention shouldn’t be something that comes as a shock, something that makes the heart increase in beats. ‘Attention’ is something closer to ‘focus’ than it is to ‘Hey! Watch out!’ The latter does more to disrupt whatever attention may be growing by, via warning, breaking it away from the original focused object that gave it the substance for maintaining itself. When attention is broken, like when the quick fix of a smartphone notification signals a serotonin bump, attention fractures while a series of automatic fantasies of the many possibilities that familiar sound could entail invade to the forefront and command attention. Whatever owns our attention says a lot about our mind’s make up and its historical formation, or, rather, it says a lot about us, and what led to our present states. It says a lot about our desires and how we rank them in importance. It says a lot about what ideas, practices, and patterns we’re willing to accept as our driving forces and our paths through life.
Just as plants either thrive or shrivel under respective amounts of sunlight, humans have a similar relationship under attention. At the earliest stages of upbringing the type of attention parents give to their child informs a significant part of that child’s makeup for the rest of his or her life. The attention that I got as a child was mostly positive, even though it was also a bit scant. I received loving attention, playful attention, concerned attention, and disciplinary attention, among others. Each variety influenced the shades of balance in the tapestry of my mental landscape. Emotions, virtues, personal characteristics, turns of phrase, attractions, repulsions, as well as many other attributes of the ‘self’ are influenced by ‘given’ attention. This—the attention that is given by others—is only one way our minds become influenced by attention. The other is what we absorb through our own attention, and the former type even plays a part in influencing the mechanics of the latter.
The attention that we give, the one that allows us to absorb information, experience, etc. into us, is the currency of the mind. We inherit most of it from our elders—they give us the ability to give it, and guide us to the beneficial ways of using it, consciously or otherwise. We use it to get what we desire. We use the term ‘pay attention’ to connote focusing on something we deem, or is deemed for us, as important. One would think, then, that we would value our attention in the same way that most people value money, that we would hoard it and grant it to the phenomena most deserving. That doesn’t seem to be the case, though, despite attention being as real as anything could possibly be, and money being an invention of the mind to serve the ego in its social functions. Julius Evola, in his Doctrine of Awakening, claims,
If one day normal conditions were to return, few civilizations would seem as odd as the present one, in which every form of power and dominion over material things is sought, while mastery over one’s own mind, one’s own emotions and psychic life in general is entirely overlooked.
Basically, what has been allowed to happen to our attention is we’ve let it become tamed in an advertiser’s circus. Our attention gets diverted from here to there, depending on the psychological tricks proven to work via market research on holding our attention. The priority seems to be on keeping your attention focused on the outside world—whether by design or not—while completely neglecting the interior one. When attention is focused on our interior subjective worlds in a habitual manner, interesting developments happen. Whether one uses or misuses that attention on the interior—and misuse is a common and dangerous occurrence—one broad conclusion comes forward; it’s a very powerful force.
Not only is attention a powerful force, but it is also an accessible one. In his book, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation, Nyanaponika Thera, claims attention as the first stepping stone towards mindfulness, the meditation method espoused by Buddha. Classifying ‘attention’ as ‘initial mindfulness,’ he says it is “one of the most elementary functions of the mind.” It is “so very near and familiar that every man, if he only would, may easily base on it his first steps of self-reliance.” Although Thera takes on the more optimistic view, countering it is Aleister Crowley, claiming that,
Meditation is not within the reach of every one; not all possess the ability; very few indeed (in the West at least) have the opportunity.
In any case what the Easterns call ‘one-pointedness’ is an essential preliminary to even early stages of true meditation. And iron will-power is a still earlier qualification.
By meditation I do not mean merely ‘thinking about’ anything, however profoundly, but the absolute restraint of the mind to the contemplation of a single object, whether gross, fine, or altogether spiritual.
The question of whether or not the strengthening and further evolution of attention to the point of meditation is within the grasp of everyone is sort of a moot point. If you’ve sought out these texts in the first place, your interest in attention development is more than likely strong enough to push you past the point where most new years resolutioners would give up. So, let’s just take Thera’s map of the path toward attention development, and ignore the obstructing Crowley comments, as part of this development is learning what is beneficial to give your attention to and what is not.
By utilizing what he calls ‘Bare attention,’ being the simplest form of attention in which there is no judgment or arguments on what is witnessed, just a simple viewing of thoughts happening within the mind, or a feeling of bodily sensations wherever the attention is focused, we come to detach ourselves from all the associations imbedded in our axioms, dissecting and viewing them for what they are, allowing them all a distinct voice so that they can either naturally stay, go, or alter. For example, when Evola talks about using attention as a means of separating itself from toxic emotions or feelings, he uses this example—“In its liberty and intangibility, the mind of the wise man is thus likened to the sky. As its clarity is unaltered by the changing vicissitudes of the clouds, so his mind is unchanged by the passions and emotions that form, transform, and pass away there according to their laws.” If we see these seemingly ingrained associations as not a part of our ‘selves,’ they cease to hold any power over us. All the negative feelings that linger in the body and mind get exposed for what they really are and eventually fulfill their fleeting nature and cease to influence our thoughts and actions as attention develops over, and, more importantly, outside of them. Perhaps attention is even the most beneficial evolution, or release, from these thoughts, feelings, or emotions, as if it had slowly gestated inside them and upon its release from within them, has gained full knowledge of them in its metamorphosis.
In this way attention is a naturally tempering force. Speaking of the interior objects of attention, Thera says, ““What Mindfulness does with them, is: to take them out of their habitual grooves and sort them out for closer inspection and improvement.” He speaks of attention as if inherent within it is a resolving function, that it hijacks the molding process that our accepted and/or neglected negativities undergo when left unchecked in their unconscious expression in our daily lives. Instead, that passive molding process turns into an active development process. As mentioned before, just as children thrive under promotional forms of attention, as plants flourish under sunlight, so our tendencies bloom under a nourishing and nonjudgmental form of bare attention. We switch from a process of mutation to one of fruition. It is the simplest, most accessible, and most affective stabilizing force, merely requiring time and the right effort and intentions for its utilization. All the aspects of our ‘selves’ that used to hinder us from calm eventually, under the development of attention, seem to change their allegiance and work to serve our process of calm attentiveness. As Thera puts it, “By the simple, non-coercive and harmonizing methods of that practice, the tension-creating forces within the mind which obstruct the purposeful activity, will gradually be absorbed into the main current of one’s aims and ideals.”
Although Crowley’s earlier quote may have been used to hamper some of the zeal for the cultivation of attention (or maybe in a form of reverse psychology to ignite it), he does have some acute observations about the common state of people’s undeveloped attentions.
If we sit down quietly and investigate the contents of our minds, we shall find that even at the best of times the principal characteristics are wandering and distraction. Anyone who has had anything to do with children and untrained minds generally knows that fixity of attention is never present, even when there is a large amount of intelligence and good will.
Intentions and ability aren’t the whole of the solution. With the same determination and habitual, time-devoted practice that athletes use to train their bodies, the person devoted to increasing attention must follow suit. Change happens to the mind and body regardless of whether one is passive or active in that change. The events of our lives are all different paths that physically lead to similar ends. How and what you focus on during that span is what defines you. Gaining control over that not only allows you the power of defining yourself, but also simultaneously exercises your abilities in true liberation.