Saturday, March 22, 2008

The Attention as a Muscle

Our primary tool for working is our Attention and yet this tool is initially almost completely invisible. In our linguistic development we have learned to associate "attention" with "interest" and see it as a curiously random occurrence, a thing that may or may not be there. When it is not there, more often than not, we blame it on the object itself for not "holding our attention". We are thus in a state where anything that moves across our field of vision (or any of the other senses) may suddenly grab hold of our attention and keep it for a while. Or conversely, we may be unable to maintain our attention on a particular object or task because there are so many other distractions (both inside and outside of us) that constantly pull at it.
If you walk down the street of any big city, you experience something like the insides of a pinball machine, where your attention is the silver ball being bounced back and forth, from advertising to political message to driving sign to person asking for money to policeman giving directions to preacher offering salvation and back to advertisement. In a city, where all these different "attention magnets" reside in a single space, it is easy to see how our attention wanders helplessly from one object to another, from one message to another, from one desire to another.
But the same is true when you are all alone, sitting in your room with your eyes closed. Various elements in you will pop up and demand the energy of your attention. Worries about paying bills, thoughts of future meetings, wonderful people you will encounter someday, achievements that you are planning, things that were said to you recently, long forgotten encounters suddenly resurfacing… all kinds of things will stick up and claim to need the scarce energy of your attention. And you will flow from one to the other, just like you do when you walk through the city.
What we need to develop then is the ability to place and hold our attention. Here you can imagine your attention as a ray of light, a ray that can be diffused outward or it can be focused in to become an intense laser. If you look around you right now, picture a ray of light that extends outward from your forehead and lands wherever you place it (or wherever it’s called). Feel it as a ray of light that has a limited amount of energy, sometimes more, sometimes less. Every time it lands on an object, a bit of that energy moves away from you, mostly dissolving outwardly like the enthropic heat that constantly leaves your body as well. Energy without direction and without focus. Energy that simply spreads out into the void. If you picture it this way, if you start to perceive it and feel it that way, you may feel a pain in your heart, a sense that something precious is being discarded without sense or purpose. And that is exactly what we are doing, moment after moment, day after day, week after week… year after year. A never ending dispersal of attention that leaves us weak and unable to Work.
This situation cannot be solved overnight. No matter how much we realize the reality of the loss, the terrible waste of our current predicament, our attention will continue to wander, spilling outwards like a leaky faucet. We need to develop our ability to focus our attention and this will take time. Like lifting weights, it is a periodic recurrent practice that is needed. Nothing will change after one day of work, not after a week… maybe after a month something may be noticeable. But we have to work on developing this muscle of attention over years in order to truly develop it. This must be intense and constant work. What takes months to develop can be lost in a matter of minutes… and then we have to start over.
Begin to perceive your attention as a precious scarce resource that needs to be developed and enriched. Use the little bit of attention that you do have to develop your skill further. And most importantly: Start from where you are. The attention you have right now is all you have. There’s no use in wishing it was better or stronger. Whatever miniscule skill you have at this point, that is what you have to work with. Like with lifting weights, you can’t start by trying to bench press 200 pounds. You use the muscles you have to develop them further, without hurting yourself. So start with small efforts (no longer than 1 minute) and slowly increase the span and the intensity of your practice. Start small and increase slowly but steadily. It’s much more useful to do something very small very well than to try something big and fail repeatedly. In fact, the second option will only lead to frustration and will lead you away from this work. Be as gentle with your machine as you would be with a little child. In many ways, that is exactly what it is.

Select for yourself a simple vase.It may be one that you have around the house, or you can pick one up from a second hand store.You will need a space in which you will be undisturbed for 5 min.Sit in a straight backed chair with the vase on a table or another chair approximately three feet away from you and within your line of vision.Set a timer for one minute.Your aim is to concentrate on the vase. Hold it with your attention. Do not analyze the different parts of the vase, or think a series of thoughts about the vase, or associate various ideas to the vase.See the vase as it exists in itself, without any connections to other things. Let the perception of the vase fill your entire mind. Do not let other thoughts or feelings or sounds or body sensation distract you. When they arise, simply acknowledge that your attention has wandered and redirect it to the vase.If you find that a particular noise or itch is extra annoying, expand into the irritation rather than attempting to retract or defend yourself from it. Expand into it and allow it to dissolve so that all of your awareness will return to the vase alone.When the timer sounds the experiment has ended.
As you do this experiment over time, increase the amount of time. Don’t add more than one minute per week. When you can’t hold the attention any longer, it may mean you have tried a span that is too long and you should bring it back down.

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