Friday, January 18, 2008

paying attention

Paying attention

George Clark, 18 January 2008

Who pays attention to what and why? It is interesting to compare (a) a parent paying attention to the whims of a child and trying to direct attention this way rather than that, and (b) you paying attention to your own whims and trying to direct them this way rather than that.

Anyone who tries to sit at peace for more than a few moments is soon aware of how busy their mind is. A continuous stream of thoughts and feelings appear in the attention centre and it is not clear where they come from or where they go. The stimulus may be from the outside world (through the sense organs) or from the inside (from bodily sensations and memory). The range of thoughts and feelings and the speed at which they change will vary from person to person and from time to time but there is no getting away from the fact of dynamic churn. There is past, present and future. How long is the present moment? Is it more than the life of a particular thought or feeling?

A young child is continuously responding to external and internal stimuli. The parent seeks to encourage good stimuli and responses and to discourage bad ones – this is an essential part of socialising the child. The parent has three ways to deal with the situation (a) prevention: the stimulus/temptation can be removed before the child has a chance to experience it (eg rearrange the furniture and knick knacks so they are child-proof); (b) reaction: during the experiencing the parent can encourage desirable responses to good stimuli and distract the child's attention from undesirable ones; and (c) recommendation: line up desirable stimuli to capture attention as it moves on.

In a similar way you are continuously responding to external and internal stimuli. There is the dynamic churn. 'You' have the option of just going along with it (and thus with your conditioning to date) or of trying to win an element of control over the process and thus of reconditioning your mind along more desirable lines.

Note an interesting philosophical niggle. There has to be an intention to pay attention. What is the source of this intention (motivation). If it is due to past causes and conditions then you are no more than a robot. If it is due to you own free will then where does that come from? Can a robot rewrite its own programme?

Either way there are some useful rules of thumb. As with children there are the before, during and after measures of prevention, reaction and recommendation. You must deal with the process yourself but we are social animals and that makes it possible to arrange suitable environments. The basic principle is to keep company with spiritually wise  people and to avoid the spiritually foolish. You can go into solitary retreat, take up residence in a monastery or stay within the everyday world. The latter option is the toughest but the most common; it might involve (a) avoiding the stimuli pointing to consumerism (adverts and the media) (b), decorating your living and working places with reminders to be mindful ie posters, statues, wisdom books etc, and (c) talking to your immediate companions to win acceptance or at least tolerance for what you are trying to do.

SO – who pays attention to what and why? Various people to various things for various reasons. But there are more or less noble options and the greatest of them involves self watching.

"The moment you realise you are not present, you are present. Whenever you are able to observe your mind, you are no longer trapped in it. Another factor has come in, something that is not of the mind: the witnessing presence."
Eckhart Tolle (1999) The Power of Now (p45)

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