One of the things that people like to do is “boil down” the staggering complexity of the world into comprehensive rules and principles. Surprisingly, the world often cooperates by revealing itself to be, in fact, a rather orderly place that does indeed seem to behave according to laws that are simple enough for us to ferret out.
Some of the rules we have worked out are abstruse, detailed and complicated, yet have held up well under critical examination – quantum mechanics and general relativity come to mind – while others are vague generalities like “there’s a sucker born every minute” and “faint heart ne’er won fair lady”. Some are obviously wrong, like “a watched pot never boils” (try this one yourself), and “the best things in life are free” (not all payment is in the form of money!), or my pet peeve, “everything happens for a reason.”
Sometimes we pick one thing and make it a central organizing principle. My friend Bob Wyman, for example, has worked out a plausible system of ethics entirely based upon the idea of resisting entropy. Another friend, songwriter Larry McNally, has written that “Love is everything – everything else is nothing.” He’s not the first to make the suggestion, but it makes a good song.
Well, I’m not immune to this temptation either, and sometimes I think that the fundamental currency in human affairs – the fungible coin in which the business of mankind is transacted – is attention.
The language is telling. We don’t give attention away, we “pay” it. “Attention must be paid!” is Linda Loman’s cri de coeur for her doomed husband Willie in Death of a Salesman. When asked by an earnest interviewer what he was “trying to say” to his audience when he was on stage, Clash guitarist Joe Strummer said “Look at me!“. If babies are not given attention, they do not thrive, and may even die, even if their nutritional needs are amply supplied. Children are like the familiar image of nestlings with their mouths agape, but instead of having to provide a continuous supply of plump worms, human parents are worn out by their offspring’s endless demands for their attention. Winston Churchill said: “Ambition, not so much for vulgar ends, but for fame, glints in every mind.” But what is fame? Nothing more than the certain knowledge that the attention of many is directed toward oneself. And money – what better means to attract the attention of others? What is “good service”, if not the idea that the attention of those around us is directed toward oneself and one’s needs? We tip for it in restaurants. We expect it at expensive hotels. In sum, to a very great extent we measure our worth by the relative share that we are able to extract from the people around us.
Power, too, is power over the attention of others. The commander, about to address his troops, explicitly demands it: “Ten-Hut!”, whereupon the men stand obediently “at attention”. Most important of all, perhaps: being in command, whether as general, boss, or king, means that you will never be ignored.
But for all its inestimable value, we are poor managers indeed when it comes to our own attention. We guard it so negligently, like a drunken sailor sprawled in an alley, that it is stolen from us a thousand times a day. We blithely loosen the pursestrings for the pettiest of distractions, without realizing that in each moment that our attention is not in our possession, not in our control, we are not really conscious.
If one studies esoteric teachings, which vary greatly in style and method, one gradually comes to realize that despite their superficial differences, beneath the surface they are all ways of working on the same problem: How can we be more “mindful”? How can we learn to conserve and control our attention?