Saturday, December 2, 2006

Another Unexpected Meditation

There was another happening in my life – in addition to the one when I photographed wildflowers -- which I decided later had been a form of meditation.

I was interested at that time in analyzing the dynamics of consciousness, and particularly in understanding “attention” and “paying attention”. I realized that whatever is “Now Playing” in that home theater watched by the ultimate Consciousness is determined by what an individual is “paying attention to” at the time.

What an individual experiences at a given moment – among all the possible different ways of experiencing the environment at that time -- is determined by the focus of attention. One woman who remembers a moment in a field might recall only the song of a bird, while another woman who stood next to her might recall only the discomfort of the hot sun on her skin.

I was curious to know what determined the movement of the focus of attention, and so I decided to try an experiment. I lay down on my back on the livingroom floor, closed my eyes, and observed what “came to my attention.” I tried to do nothing. I did not direct my attention anywhere. I just concentrated entirely on where my attention went.

Many things claimed attention in turn: A passing car, a popping sound in a wall, a barking dog, a tickling on my left ear, the faint smell of smoke, a child’s shout down the block, a moment of distant music.

I was fascinated, completely absorbed, to the point that I lay there concentrating for almost an hour, taking in every sound, smell, and sensation as my attention jumped here and there like the beam of a searchlight. My degree of concentration drove most verbal thoughts from my mind.

I began to realize that for some reason this was a very pleasant experience, profoundly relaxing emotionally and physically, bringing a sense of unusual peacefulness, but only later would it occur to me call the experience meditation. As with my wildflower photography meditation, I remember it much more clearly and more frequently than most days of my life.

Because the purpose of my lying on the floor was not to meditate, but rather to learn something about attention, I’ll mention some things that I observed.

Attention is immediately drawn to whatever is new in the environment. When a sound is heard for the first time, it gets top priority. On the other hand, a sound that is continual, or almost continual, in your surroundings gets almost no attention. . . unless it stops, in which case the sudden absence of something gets a flash of immediate attention.

A useful question to ask about most behaviors is, “How does this promote survival?” The explanation in this case must be that something that is familiar generally poses no threat; if it did, you would not have remained in that setting long enough for the thing to become familiar

Of course attention is likely to remain focused for quite a while on something new which persists, but even then attention tends to jump rapidly around from one thing to another – almost as if not wanting to lose track of the items that make up the rest of the picture. Then, if the new phenomenon stays around long enough, it ceases to be new and eventually goes into “safely familiar" status.

I asked, based on my observation, if attention can be placed on more than one thing at the same time, and my answer was that it cannot. Even though you may feel that you are listening to your spouse and the television set at the same time, or that you are listening to music and reading a book simultaneously, I think that your attention is hopping back and forth between the two. Just as the individual frames in a moving picture aren’t distinguishable, the sense of paying attention to two things at once is an illusion.

When I lay down to observe attention, it turned out – as often happens – that what I thought I was going to accomplish was not the most important result of what I did. I observed some interesting things about attention, but I learned more about the meaning of meditation.

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