19. Attention

I will begin with John Dewey and William James, both of whom I have written about already in this sequence of essays.  John Dewey was an American philosopher and educationalist, who died in his nineties in 1952.  He was one of the best-known intellectuals in the USA in the first half of the twentieth century and was both a champion and student of the Alexander Technique from the early days of F M Alexander’s work.  William James, the man who in the English speaking world did more than anyone to establish psychology as an academic discipline, was also a philosopher, and John Dewey’s hero.  Dewey called himself a ‘biological behaviourist’ by which he meant that he was interested in the ways in which an organism interacts with its natural environment.  He did not want to try to penetrate psychological states as expressions of a ‘mind’ and he did not want to try to reduce minds to physiological processes within the organism.

When we turn to William James we find a man happy to deal in ambivalence.  He wanted to study and give meaning to physiology, and he also wanted to acknowledge an immaterial spiritual force in the human being.  William James wants to stress that we feel ourselves to be in the world in a very physical way – in a famous dismissal he describes our inner active self “to consist mainly of the collection of these peculiar motions in the head or between the head and throat… it would follow that our entire feeling of spiritual activity, or what commonly passes by that name, is really a feeling of bodily activities whose exact nature is by most men overlooked” (P.P. Vol 1, p 288).  This is how we experience ourselves, but reflection leads William James to discover a genuine “spiritual force”, an active inner moral agent which is the “substantive thing which we are” (P.P. Vol 2, p 1181).  The activity which confirms James’ belief in such an immaterial entity is attention, or, more precisely, the effort we put into attending.

For Dewey it is important to only recognise the workings of the mind in an individual’s behaviour, of pursuing ends and choosing means to attain those ends.  This is at the heart, too, of the Alexander Technique.  What James also acknowledges, and which Dewey tends to ignore, is that the whole process, leading to action, begins, or can begin, with the free volition, the effort we bring to our attention, the effort to sustain an idea in our consciousness.   ‘Behaviour’ is not just ‘moving into an action’.  This too, for me, is an essential feature of the Alexander Technique – the value of self-motivated thinking attention.  James asserts he cannot measure this energy of attention, or demonstrate that it is created anew from within – only that the effort seems to belong, as I quoted above, to our essence, to “the substantive thing which we are”.  He contrasts this to all those qualities and circumstances – wealth, strength, intelligence, good luck etc – which are “but externals which we carry (P.P. Vol 2, p 1181).  The engagement with reality via our willed attention is, for William James, not just the business of major decisions.  Life asks us the question of whether we will give this attention or not and it is “the most probing question we are ever asked;  we are asked it every hour of the day, and about the largest, as well as the smallest, the most theoretical as well as the most practical, things.  We answer by consents or non-consents and not by words” (P.P. Vol 2, p 1182).

The contrast between what we are and what we carry is an important one.  What we are does not weigh us down.  James recognises a thinking self in a way which Dewey does not – a self whose effort of attention exists outside the flow of behaviour, of stimulus and response.

Michael Lipson helps me to understand the quality of attention in his introduction to a series of lectures Rudolf Steiner gave in September 1924 about the different tasks, and the working together, of the priest and the doctor.  “Throughout his works, Steiner continually emphasises the fundamental deed of the human being as the giving attention to his or her chosen task.  The more wholly we give, the more we are giving of our selves – and our essential self is precisely our attentiveness, for which another name is love” (B.V. Foreword, p 13).  That gets to the heart of it for me – the self is attentiveness.  In a lecture of Rudolf Steiner’s from some years before (1912), which I have already referred to entitled “Nervousness and I-hood” (‘Ichheit’ in the original German), there are many suggestions to encourage the fuller presence of the I-being in the movements of the body.  Rudolf Steiner pictures a man who “continually makes restless motions with his fingers before he begins to write this or that letter”.  Steiner says, yes, rest might help, but more effective, in addition, would be the following suggestion “try, without making a lot of effort – a quarter or a half hour every day are enough – try to take on a different handwriting, to change your writing style, so that you are required not to write mechanically, as you have up till now, but to pay attention” (A E L, p38).  I find this a lovely example of that everyday engagement of attention which William James saw as having such deep personal significance – bringing the self to life.

I want to distinguish this power of attentiveness from the ongoing activity of the person, but also to remember that attention is not solely a mental event.  The activity of perception, especially in the child, has an active, whole-body quality.  What is taken in (especially in the stillness of absorption) goes right into the movement-being of the child.  The child, as a whole being, receives impressions.  Our attentiveness allows us to become what we experience, or, perhaps better put – what we experience becomes us.  The biological behaviourism of John Dewey does not do justice to the being of the behaving organism, or to the fullness of being of what we respond to in the world.

Let me go back to the brain for a while.  We engage in different kinds of attention – anticipating an event, picking out a feature of my environment, keeping focused on a task – all of which involve me selecting.  The many investigations of brain activity which identify the brain areas which are involved in disengaging, moving, re-engaging attention; the experiments which reveal how blind we are to changes occurring outside the focus of attention – such phenomena might seem to undermine the sense we have of being in charge.  But within all this brain activity I notice that our perception is always seeking out what matters to us.  Because we are active in our attention, it can become dominated by expectations and habits.  But it is equally possible to use the fact that we interpret, create, the world we see, to turn our perceiving into an artistic activity so that we always have the possibility of self-education in our attentiveness.

To a large extent we can see our perceiving as being a guide to action, in the spirit of Dewey’s ‘biological behaviourism’.  Visual information (principally) is involved in the unconscious control of movement, much more than in creating images of the world.  Attentiveness breaks into this ongoing activity and lets us recognise what we are seeing.  Attention opens up consciousness to us.

The relationship of attention to consciousness is brought into focus very clearly through looking at meditative practices.  Mark Epstein, a psychotherapist who, as the subtitle of his wise book Thoughts without a Thinker says, works “from a Buddhist perspective” notes that there is not really a word for meditation in the classical languages of Buddhism.  He tells the famous parable of the man who fashions a raft in order to cross water and who wonders when he reaches the other side whether he should take the raft with him, carry it on his back, as he goes on his journey.  The raft is comparable to meditation, a way of helping mental development.  In another text Buddha uses the image of crossing the water and replies to the question as to how he did it by saying it was without tarrying and without struggling – “When tarrying, friend, I sank, and when struggling, I was swept away.  So, friends, it is by not tarrying and not struggling that I have crossed the flood” (quoted in TWT, P 106).

Please bear in mind these two qualities – not tarrying, not being swept away – as I try to look at meditative practices in order to highlight the purpose and nature of attention.  There is one type of meditative technique which consists in the attempt to restrict awareness to a single source of interest for a set period of time – concentration on a visual object, a sound, a movement.  This can be found in many spiritual traditions and typically they speak of the practice leading to a “one-pointedness”, a state of clarity.  The mind becomes quiet because one has consciously separated from the changing input and stimulation which maintains normal awareness.  Our habitual sense of the world, and of our self is lost.  Mark Epstein, through the experience of his teacher, evokes an experience I have mentioned in earlier essays – going through an inner well of loneliness towards a centre, which changes from being experienced as a hole to a state of expanded fullness.  He says that concentration practices “take the spatial view of the self as empty, hollow, incomplete, or closed and expand it to infinity, allowing the meditator to rest in clear and open space” (TWT, p 140).

The second form of meditative practice can be described as mindfulness or opening-up exercises.  Mark Epstein is adamant that concentration exercises were not considered by the Buddha to be sufficient – on their own they can become something of an escape, although the peaceful stability they bring is a valuable foundation.  With mindfulness we shift from a spatial sense of the self to a temporal: by becoming aware of what is happening, as it is happening, we experience the flux but also how removed we often are from immediate reality.  Mark Epstein describes this everyday dissociation: “When I read a bedtime story to my children, for instance, I can at the same time be plotting out the details of my next writing project to myself.  If one of my children interrupts me to ask a question, I find that I have no idea what I am reading about.  Rather than being mindful, I am instead reading mindlessly, and while I would prefer to think otherwise, my children’s experience of me will be lifeless.  Similarly, when walking to the store, washing the dishes, brushing our teeth, or even making love, we often are split off from our physical experience: we are quite literally not present.  Our minds and bodies are not functioning as one” (TWT, p 144).

Epstein is very clear, following Buddhist wisdom and bringing it into our modern western world, that while a kind of surrender is the goal of meditative practice, this surrender is not the charged state of heightened awareness, effortless energy, rapture, tranquillity which may arise.  Buddhist practice is not about bliss. The very intensity of these states asks of us to develop an even clearer strength of detachment, of allowing the self to be experienced as “a flow, a process, a rushing and teeming patterning that changes over time” (TWT, P 151).  Mark Epstein again uses an everyday example – his meditative refreshment allows him to let go of his need to be an efficient and competent parent.  He has just changed his child’s nappy: “She looked up at us and smiled, giving us a look of such love that I immediately felt tears spring to my eyes.  It was the first time that I had noticed her love coming back to me.  I could have gone on for a very long time being efficient, I am sure, without ever noticing that look, yet because of my momentary ability to be more directly with my own sensory experience, I was able to receive my daughter’s overture” (TWT, p 148).  These mindfulness or opening up exercises are more closely related to daily activity than the concentration exercises.  Concentration exercises might be thought of as having the tendency towards withdrawal; mindfulness, through its attention to time, lets us be free of the habitual ways of perception and can bring us back to the present, to bodily-based experience: “opening up to the transitoriness of experience paradoxically makes us feel more real” (TWT, p 145).  To take a rather severe example: a clock ticking.  Normally we stop hearing it, we tune it out.  While concentration exercises enhance that ability to a conscious skill of tuning out what we choose to ignore, mindfulness exercises would enable us, if we so chose, to keep alive and conscious our awareness of the ticks.  Attention can filter or it can keep open.

The power of attention is highlighted by meditative practices and is deeply significant in how we learn, how we develop and interact with others, as Mark Epstein’s stories of his parenting illustrate.  Tim Ingold, an anthropologist with interest in skill and technology, contributed a paper, relevant to my topic, to a volume of essays entitled Alas Poor Darwin which challenge the genetic determinism of Evolutionary Psychology.  The essay concerns walking, and learning to walk, and Tim Ingold is keen for us to see that “skills such as walking continue to evolve in the very course of our everyday lives” (APD, p 234).  “Novices learn through being placed in situations in which, faced with certain tasks, they are shown what to do and what to watch out for, under the tutelage of more experienced hands…   Placed in a situation of this kind, the novice is instructed to attend to this or that aspect of what can be seen, touched or heard, so as to get the ‘feel’ of it for him- or herself” (APD, P 237).  Ingold agrees with the ecological psychologist James Gibson that learning embodied skills is an “education of attention” (APD, p 238).  In this view meaning is generated in relationships, knowledge comes to life “within the field of practice set up through his or her presence as a being-in-the-world” (APD, P238).

His is a very radical rejection of dualism – he wants us to be willing not only to describe our skills as being ‘embodied’ – “one could just as well speak of ‘enmindment’ as of ‘embodiment’ (APD, p 240).  Movement is seen as a form of knowing, of perceiving, not just acting.  He puts such stress on engagement, on trying out the task.  In such a world human development demands participation by the individual and his community.  That participation is, at heart, attention.  Attention is what makes possible two developments which belong together – that we feel ourselves as whole, not split into body and mind, and that we recognise our connection to the people around us and the world we find ourselves in.  Attention – being attentive to ourselves and to our interaction with the world – is a primary concern in practising the Alexander Technique.  So too is overcoming the split between mind and body.  If you take seriously Tim Ingold’s picture of knowledge emerging out of interactive attention between people, then you can see why John Dewey saw in the Alexander Technique a pure image of how learning takes place.  Skills develop out of a relationship of attention, and attention becomes a foundational skill in itself.

If we look for a minute at the word ‘attention’ – it means, at the most physical, to stretch out, to reach out towards something.  This meaning has always included the act of directing the mind towards someone or something: mind and body.  As the use of the word developed, it came to include the idea of serving another, being a servant, waiting upon, being an attendant, a lady-in-waiting etc.  The going out towards the world belongs with the patience, the readiness, being truly present.  Attending a meeting once meant more than being there in body.  So, the activity, the outgoing nature of attention has always been balanced by, been founded in, the quiet self-abnegation of the faithful servant.  But the kind of participatory engagement which Tim Ingold describes speaks to me of the presence of the inner certainty of the free personal agent, the self.  There is a clear and delicate description of this give and take by Rudolf Steiner when writing about the path of individual development in Stages of Higher Knowledge: “The human being must find within himself a spiritual centre of gravity that gives him firmness and security in the face of all that would pull him hither and thither in life.  The sharing in all surrounding life must not be shunned, and everything must be allowed to work upon one.  Not flight from all distracting activities of life is the correct course, but, rather, the full devoted yielding to life, along with the sure, firm guiding of inner balance and harmony” (p 18).

This is attention, the path of everyday mindfulness, the negotiation between self and the world which the Alexander Technique can support.  A spiritual centre of gravity allows us to be and not to have to carry, to refer back to William James’ distinction at the beginning of the essay.  He also spoke of the effort a man brings, out of himself, to his attention as “the effort he is able to put forth to hold himself erect and keep his heart unshaken” (PP, Vol 2, p 1181).  The Alexander Technique teaches us to value being erect but also to be concerned about where and how the effort to achieve and maintain being upright is being expended.  Attention, combining quiet inwardness and active reaching out, can help our effort not to be wasted, not to be trapped inside a mind, or a body.

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