Your Attention, Please

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?

4 Comments

  1. As always, great post. However, let me suggest a slight clarification on your terminology. ‘Attention’ is a great label, but consider that it’s really a mashup (!) of two other concepts: ‘presence’ and ‘energy’. Words like mindful, attention, etc are all about Presence (in the buddhist sense). And if you replace ‘giving attention’ to ‘giving energy’, that (imho) sounds better.

    (btw, metaphysically, I maintain that attention = energy = love…. at some point would be fun to discuss… )

    On a totally separate note, you should create a blog (or a category) for all the quotable quotes about musicians you’ve heard over the years. I’m still chuckling of your recount of Strauss saying “don’t even look at the trombones, it only encourages them” : )

    Posted January 25, 2006 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Why thanks, Salim, and thanks for visiting.

    No, I think I’ll stick with “attention”. It has a very clear definition, and it is a definition that is well understood in both esoteric and neurological/cognitive circles. “Energy”, on the other hand, is a word that has been misappropriated and misused in so many ways, by so many gormless and muddle-headed New Age mushmouths, that it has lost almost all precision. In my opinion almost the only realm in which the word really means anything anymore, in any technical sense, is physics.

    And I must disagree with your suggestion that when I pay attention I “give energy”. Let’s say I am looking out the window, lost in a daydream. Suddenly I notice a falling leaf, and it becomes the object of my attention. In what sense has the leaf gained energy?

    If we wish to introduce this overburdened word to discussions of inner growth and esoteric work we must do so in such a way as not to lose useful discriminative terms. There may well be a relationship between energy, attention, and love, but the referents are not identical.

    Please forgive me if my reaction seems a bit heated; the vague and confusing usage of this particular word is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

    Posted January 25, 2006 at 6:31 pm | Permalink
  3. Gee, catch a nerve, did I?

    I consider metaphysically to be distinct from physically…. (this is a much longer discussion better had over beers)… and it’s an intuitive leap not a linear leap (says he desperately trying to sidestep the flaws in his logic). Language is sooo limiting – I can’t wave my hands like I normally do…

    The folks at N.A.M.B.L.A won’t like you much (that’s the New Age Mushmouth Blog Lovers Association)

    S.

    Posted January 25, 2006 at 6:50 pm | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says

    Hi Salim,

    “NAMBLA”… that’s funny. Well, if they don’t like me, I’ll take that as a compliment.

    And right you are, metaphysics is indeed distinct from physics, and I have nothing against intuition. But if we are going to use language at all, whether for physics or metaphysics, we all have to be clear about, and agree on, what the words mean, or we aren’t really communicating. And life is so short…

    M

    Posted January 25, 2006 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

One Trackback

  1. By waka waka waka » Blog Archive » Only Human on May 21, 2006 at 11:55 pm

    […] But what can creep in, even in this purest of enterprises, is the hunger for status. I see this in myself – I participate in some online philosophical forums, and the wish to be the one who makes the most penetrating comment, who brings the insight that others overlooked, is strong indeed. The payoff is the respect of the others in the group, and of course if one really hits it big, and comes up with the new paradigm that will cut some ancient Gordian Knot, one wins the existential jackpot – cultural immortality. (Of course, all of this is just variations on a theme; as I have suggested in a previous post, the currency that we are really dealing in here, as is true always and in everything, is attention.) […]

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