What Catches Your Attention?
Last week, I introduced the yogic concept of illusion, the drama that unfolds within our inner and outer worlds. This week, I’d love to explore in a little more detail, how our attention interacts with these illusory worlds. And how we can gain a sense of agency and freedom from these powerful fields of energy that affect us at every level of our being.
I love to reflect on the deeper meaning of often repeated phrases. In a meditation group I attended before lockdown, Wendell Henckle1 asked us to consider the way we speak about attention. We say things like: “it caught my attention,” “ that really captured my attention”, or “my attention was held, I was spellbound”. We might even say that our attention was “hijacked”. These phrases describe the world of illusion (maya) somehow acting upon us, drawing us into its field. Notice how all these phrases communicate a sense of being held against our will.
Do You Have Free Will?
We might feel that we have free will, that we are free to give our energy, and attention to whatever we choose. Notice how I snuck that word, “energy” in there? For attention does have an effect on our energy… more on this in next week’s article. In any case, on closer inspection, we might find that we are not as free as we might think.
Many organisations are vi-ing for our attention. Since the film, The Social Dilemma and due to people like Jaron Lanier, we are a lot more clued up as to how social media captures and utilises our attention. Yet we are also prey to other forces such as the news, advertising, TV and computer gaming. The media and entertainment sectors research, develop and utilise powerful techniques to attract and hold our attention, for the purpose of profit, power and control.
The I Maker
The part of us that is vulnerable to this kind of capture is our ego (roughly translated as ahamkara or “I-maker” in Sanskrit). The ego or I-maker is concerned with keeping us, and our loved ones, comfortable and safe. The ahamkara is therefore very interested in stories, narratives or information about possible threats to our life or our way of life. This part of us feels that if we can get as much information as possible about what threatens us, then we can learn to avoid disaster and calamity. This is of course an illusion, yet it is a very compelling one.
This is why bad news is so much more popular than positive news. It’s also the reason that aspirational adverts subtly work to make us feel “less than” or “in danger” or “not on trend” so that we feel compelled to buy. The ahamkara has no sense of our interconnectedness with all other beings, with Life itself. When we view life through this lens, we can feel alone, isolated and vulnerable. This feeling leads us to want to be connected to something bigger than ourselves, something powerful… like a nation-state, an army or a group of people who have similar beliefs and even a similar outward appearance to ourselves.
Safety in Numbers?
We encounter a problem when we realise that (in order to create “safety”) there are pre-requisites for our membership of the larger group. To gain entry our credentials are evaluated to see if we have a similar skin tone, accent, class, life experience, political viewpoint or gender identity. If we make the grade somehow, we get to be part of the club. The ego part of ourselves gets a boost, gaining a sense of belonging, camaraderie and protection. However, at what expense?
When we seek to align ourselves with groups who take care of their own, and exclude others according to how they look or think, this creates more division in our world. If we rely on the protection of a larger group that does not welcome everyone as equals then we perpetuate division and will continually live in fear of the threat of “the other”.
Divide and Rule
We have become habituated to dividing people according to nationality, race or beliefs. We have lived and breathed a deep division against Mother Nature herself whom we seek to control with concrete, pesticides, genetic modification, extractive mining, inhumane farming practices and deforestation. When we forget our interconnectedness, we are prone to more separation, oppositional thinking, war-mongering, racism, hatred and fear.
“The enemies of those struggling for freedom and democracy are not man. They are discrimination, dictatorship, greed, hatred and violence, which lie within the heart of man. These are the real enemies of man—not man himself.”
Statement by Martin Luther King and Thich Naht Hahn, May 31st 1966.
From the article: “I Have Always Felt His Support” A look into the friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr., two brothers working to build a Beloved Community, By Marc Andrus
We can use our attention to counter the effect of it being caught and used by powerful forces with their own agendas of power, profit and control. If we actively and consciously choose where we place our attention, we can avoid the trap of being manipulated into oppositional thinking.
Placing our attention is choosing to focus deeply, essentially it is the practice of meditation, contemplation or prayer. Bringing our attention to our own breath moving in and out, helps us to train our capacity to choose where we put our focus, where we direct our energy. The thinking mind (manas or manamayakosha) will try to pull us away from focussing on the breath (prana or pranamayakosha) again and again. As we continually catch ourselves drifting into thinking and repeatedly bring our attention back to the breath, we strengthen our capacity to exercise our free will.
Exercising our choice of where to place our attention is very different to having our attention captured by the drama or the spectacle of what is going on in the outer world. Giving attention is an active conscious choice; quite different to the passive nature of having our attention captured. To exercise this conscious choice we need a different viewpoint than the ahamkara offers. When we are actively choosing, with discernment, where to place our attention, we are activating a part of our mind called the buddhi, the aspect of our mind that is awakened, discerning. This part of us recognises our connection to the whole. This is the meaning of being awakened, it means we recognise our Unity, our Oneness, our non-separation from All That Is.
Meditation and Interconnectedness
For most of us, our meditations will consist of the concentration of our awareness, dharana. This is just perfect, for it opens up the door to deeper states to arise when we are ready for them. Even if we don’t have a formal meditation practice, we might have a sense of interconnectedness as we work in the garden, cook for our family or look after a loved one. Mother Nature is the ultimate expression of interconnectedness. Actively placing our attention on the balance and harmony inherent in plants and wildlife can instil a mini awakening on a regular basis.
Contentment and Bliss
The hallmark of experiencing interconnectedness is that the illusion of separation drops away. We see every blade of grass, every sentient being, every river and rock as alive and worthy of our care and loving attention. In this way, we gain freedom from lack, division and domination. Sensing our interconnectedness creates feelings of peace (shanthi), contentment (santosa) and bliss (ananda). These are nourishing states that are available to us all. Many great spiritual leaders, such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King, have chosen to place their attention on interconnectedness (Beloved Community), peace and nonviolence, even when in great danger. We honour them, and in some small way contribute to their work, by following their example.
Let’s finish with the way Henckle explains attention:
Attention is the gaze of the Absolute upon creation.
Consciousness flows along the line of attention.
Attention frees the mind from habit.
Self, rides on the chariot of attention.
Give attention, do not let it be taken from you.
Captured attention leads to a loss of Consciousness, Knowledge and Bliss.
Wendell Henckle, Self Knowledge Through Meditation, Vol.1