The Miracle of Attention
October 24th, 2022
"Where you spend your attention is where you spend your life."
We take it for granted. It is so normal we hardly ever notice it. It is so ingrained in the way we perceive the world that we take it to be part of reality. It isn’t. It’s a tool we have that allows us to create reality. And it’s a miracle, because it turns chaos into order and nonsense into sense.
We are flooded by stimuli. The amount of information that enters our senses is infinite. Light and colours: there’s no end to them; we just need to open our eyes. Sounds of all kinds: the world around us is never silent. Body sensations, touch, tastes and smells…
It was once thought that we’re born tabula rasa, a clean slate. We take in all that information that comes through our senses, and by repetition, trial and error we create a coherent picture of reality.
This view ignores the power of the mind. A clean slate will never differentiate anything from anything else. How do we start identifying and separating objects in this flood of senseless information? How do we distinguish self from non-self?
My wife, who teaches aspiring Gestalt therapists, elaborated in a recent training module on the theme of Figure and Background. I keep finding lovely parallels between Gestalt therapy and Feldenkrais, and this one is no exception. It sounds perfectly familiar to me, and it boils down to one overlooked and miraculous skill of our nervous system, that of Attention.
Figure and background aren’t out there. They’re an active mechanism of the mind. We constantly try to identify figures in the ocean of colour and movement that invades us. And when we identify a figure, we hold on to it, we follow it and study it. We actively filter out the background. That’s how we gather information about the world around us. The colours and movement around us have no intrinsic information if we can’t select and define what we’re looking at. That’s what attention does.
Attention doesn’t just sit there and happen. It’s our mind’s tool for selecting, choosing, filtering, identifying and making sense of the world. It’s the flashlight that highlights the figure and separates it from the background. It’s the thing that distinguishes us from a clean slate in that first phase when we, as new-borns, start to perceive. We narrow down the flow of information into a single object: Only then it starts meaning something.
We sometimes think that children learn by osmosis, simply absorbing skills and information effortlessly and without even trying. Yes, in that first critical period they learn a lot, rapidly and effortlessly, but not without attention. You can often see babies totally absorbed by something (as in the photo above) for long periods of time. Their attention is almost palpable. We are born with that ability to focus, to seek out the figure out of the background and stay with it. I’d say this is what makes learning possible.
As adults, we don’t learn so fast, and we don’t spend so much time on learning. We must optimise the learning process. So we use our ability to direct our attention in an intelligent way. In a Feldenkrais class or a Persistent Growth short session, we use movement as a playground for learning by optimising our use of attention. The teacher helps you by directing your attention: How are you breathing? What does your hip joint do when you turn? How does your shoulder blade move? These instructions help you separate a figure from the background and create learning. This is how you get meaningful information.
When you direct your attention that way as you move, the flood of sensations narrows down into meaningful details. These details are information that is useful for the nervous system, and can be integrated into new and better patterns of movement. The sensory flood in itself is useless until you notice and differentiate something specific. In fact, if we don’t pay attention, we use that flood of input just to do the same things repeatedly and unconsciously. Without attention there’s no learning.
Stimulus in itself does not induce learning until you perceive a difference. A clean slate doesn’t perceive a difference. We do. This is the miracle of attention.
We have created an environment that robs us of our focus and tries to distract us constantly. Remember this innate power you were born with: the power of attention. It is yours to use. Use it wisely.
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Spend three minutes a day to focus your attention in a meaningful way, and you’re on a path to improve your skill of awareness.
Use these three minutes to pay attention to the way you move, and you’ll also be improving that: moving better, feeling better, doing better (more effectively and with less strain) whatever it is you love doing.
All that in three minutes a day? Yes! Take a look at my Persistent Growth Membership. We are proving this possible, each and every day.