Monday, November 1, 2010

The Necessity of Attention

As we keep at it, year after year, what else could we do to increase the power of our attention? First of all, from an Intellectual Center point of view, it is crystal clear why it is so important for us to pay attention and be present -- or do I need to go over this again?

Could you go over this again, please?

Right. I can think of five reasons. Let's spell them out:

1) Fundamental Pillars. As we've seen repeatedly, attention and presence are the foundations of most spiritual practices throughout the world. All the great religions of this world advocate their practice as captured in the admonition of Christ to his disciples, "Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh..., lest... he find you sleeping." (Mark 13:35-36), or that of Buddhism and its emphasis on Mindfulness.

2) Bases for Self-Observation. Attention and presence are the only means that will enable us to observe what is taking place both within and outside of us and in so doing, unearth and expose our innumerable 'I's. Gurdjieff once said in this regard: "There is no attention in people. You must aim to acquire this. Self-obsevation is only possible after acquiring attention."

3) Achieve Our Aim. They are the only means we have as we struggle to reach our ultimate goal of self-division and self-remembering on a continuous basis, and ultimately, develop a permanent I, True Will, and the ability to transform ourselves.

4) Behave Consciously. It is the only way we will manage to truly act instead of spending a lifetime reacting to our various conditionings. Attention and prescence represent our only safeguards against the inevitable mechanical identifications, distractions and seductions that lie ahead of us.

5) Transformation. And most importantly, they represent the only means to truly change and transform ourselves. Only by placing attention relentlessly and steadfastly on our machine will the latter eventually give up and loosen itself of its mechanicalness. A focused and yet relaxed attention will help us gather our energies and climb peaks of consciousness that we never knew existed as we reach our higher centers.

What are the steps involved?

First of all, let us accumulate as much knowledge as we can about what being attentive and present mean. Here are the most common characteristics of Attention. Please ensure that you remember them.

Characteristics of Attention

     - It consists mainly of three types. In line with Gurdjieff's teachings, Nicoll distinguished between three types of attention. He said once: "Attention is of three kinds: (1) Zero-attention, which characterizes the mechanical division of centers; (2) attention that does not require effort, but is attracted and needs only the keeping out of irrelevant things; (3) attention that must be directed by effort and will." We are mostly concerned with this third kind.

     - Triggered by interest. Attention is triggered by our interest. Once we become interested in something, for example, watching our child play tennis, we become attentive to it. Without this intitial interest, there cannot be attention.

     - It helps us to sense ourselves. Attention helps us determine which center and which part of which center we are using. If a task requires little or no attention, we are in the mechanical part. For example, when we drive our car effortlessly, the mechanical part of our Moving Center is operating. When our attention is held by what we are doing, for example, when we are interested, excited or captivated by a movie or football match, we are using the emotional part of our Intellectual Center. And when we hold and direct our attention with effort and will on whatever we are thinking, feeling, or doing, we are using the intellectual parts of our Intellectual, Emotional, and Moving Centers respectively. As we operate mostly in the mechanical parts of our various centers (and for activities like driving that is indeed wholly appropriate), do you understand why, on the whole, we make so little use of Attention as a tool and, as a result, are so asleep and incapable of observing ourselves?

     - On and Off. As you rightly observed earlier on, attention is seldom permanent but has an 'on and off' button. It digresses and wanders off very easily. At the beginning of the self-mastery process, we soon discover, much to our frustration, that our attention is drawn automatically to something, be it an association, a moving object, a loud noise, or something someone said. Most of the time, we cannot hold our attention. It is drawn in a particular direction and is not directed. And in the process we waste much precious energy.

     - Like a Muscle. Finally, attention is like a muscle. As we have said before, the more you use it, the more it develops. Initially, it may require much energy to keep its flame alight and this in turn may feel too tiring at times. But if we keep at it, constantly reminding ourselves of both our aims and goals, our 'muscle' gets stronger and it becomes easier to flex it. Gurdjieff once advised: "To achieve this aim [of self-obsevation], you must try and try. When you try, the result will not be, in the true sense, self-observation. But trying will strengthen your attention; you will learn to concentrate better. And this will be useful later. Only then can one begin to remember oneself."

Practicing Attention

But let's not get too caught up in these various definitions and characteristics. For our purposes here, all of you can experience attention simply and directly by doing the following. Whilst you are listening to me, please look at your index finger in your left hand and feel it in full. Bring all your attention to sensing this finger as you continue to listen to me. Do it. Right. You are now in attention and have successfully divided yourself in two. And of course, if you see yourself doing all this, you are then in full self-observation. Any comments?

It is quite amazing. You feel very present! All my thoughts have stopped.

Exactly. By dividing your attention and placing half of it on your hand, you have succeeded in breaking the grip of identification. You remain separate. Your associative machinery has grinded to a halt and for a short while, you were not lost in daydreams, uncontrolled imagination, or fantasies.

Now contrast this to what you generally see around you. One of my prefered pastimes is to sit in public places like restaurants and parks and observe people around me, focusing on their restless bodies. If you do the same, you will notice how we all, men and women, automatically display nervous and restless movements, tics, habits as we walk, talk, eat, or just sit. When we walk, we seem powerless to move about purposefully and in full presence. We seldom get up from our chair in full awareness of all the limbs involved. We do not walk by capitalizing on the momentum created by the first step, balancing our head evenly on our spine. Instead, we get up automatically, nervously or apathetically, all too often adopting some unfortunate crooked or uneven posture. Similarly, when we talk, we seem incapable of keeping a face whose eyebrows are not knotted or avoiding these unconscious gestures such as rubbing our nose, frowning, or stroking our hair. As we speak, we seem unable to avoid using language tics full of slang, jargon, or colloquial speech that would have caused our English teacher to squirm in embarrassment. As we drink or eat, we struggle to make complete contact with whatever touches our lips, prefering instead to gulp down everything or masticate endlessly, or play absentmindedly with the utensils in front of us. Even as we sit, we appear adamant that we should cup our chin, stroke our beards, adopt a slouched or rigid position, cross and re-cross our legs, straighten our ties or skirts, or stare endlessly into the void, lost in our imagination. And when we get home, we see nothing wrong when we, or our kids, eat whilst watching television, or read a newspaper whilst music pours out of the hi-fi. In fact, we call this whole circus "multi-tasking" and are rather proud that we can thus "attend" to many things at the same time.

I recently came across this piece on attention by Michel Waldberg. Can I share it with the newcomers?

Please do.

He wrote: "We move like ghosts. None of our actions is the fruit of considered will. All our gestures have something jerky and inharmonious about them. We pay no attention to things. Neither the grain of this paper nor the coolness of that glass affect us. And we pass by other ghosts, with worn-out faces, whose twisted skeletons creak with the flesh. We are haggard, crooked, putrefying. We wear absurd clothes, and wear them without elegance. And we think. Or rather, images flit about in our heads, memories, obsessions. Even supposing that we do claim to be happy, it is the happiness of pigs in a wallow. Sometimes a few sparks flare in the night of our consciousness. We are assailed by vertigo, and make haste to forget them. We have love and respect neither for earth nor sky. We make use of objects without seeing that we are mishandling them. Go into a restaurant and watch the men and women who would set up such a howl if somebody were to assert their absence of consciousness. Forks and spoons are lifted towards mouths which open mechanically. Do they even know what they are eating -- leaf, root, slice of dead animal? It is enough for it to be 'good' -- no, not even that, for it to be 'edible' -- and decomposing flesh cooked and re-cooked in stale oils slides into the stomach. Let anyone who lays claim to consciousness at least have the grace not to bolt down his food like an animal: at that moment I might be able to believe him."

From: 'The Triumph of Self-Mastery: A Fourth Way Guide', pgs. 96-100
by Eric Charoux, Ph.D.