[Learning how to think] means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. --David Foster Wallace
Attention as an Art Form
--by Viral Mehta, syndicated from huffingtonpost.com, Aug 22, 2011
185 billion bits of information. In an average lifetime, this is what the human brain is capable of processing; according to the famous psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: "It is out of this total that everything in our life must come -- every thought, memory, feeling or action. It seems like a huge amount, but in reality it does not go that far." With any limited resource, the fact that it's in short supply can quickly create a feeling of scarcity. But it can also snap us back to attention and foster wise use.
In what "Time Magazine" dubbed as one of the best commencement speeches ever, the late author, David Foster Wallace, went as far as to say that honing this skill is the truest purpose of education. He said that "learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to, and to choose how you construct meaning from experience." It comes down to working with the core property of human experience -- attention, which can be broken down into four key aspects:
1. Awareness: As I sit here, I see the wind rustling through the leaves, remember a pleasant memory of camping in the woods, hear the faint sounds of jazz music float in from next door and feel the slight tension in my hamstring ease. All of these things are happening simultaneously. To some extent, I'm aware of them, but when I consciously tune into them, more things keep bubbling up. In a sense, my experience in any moment is totally defined by my level of awareness. "The unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind," David Brooks writes in his book "Social Animal." "[And these parts have] a processing capacity 200,000 times greater than the conscious mind." That line between conscious and sub-conscious isn't fixed. By sharpening my ability to notice all that is happening around and within me, I can make more and more things conscious. This sharpening is like using a muscle -- the more I use it, the stronger it grows.
2. Choice: With the things I am conscious of, am I actually taking them into meaningful account, learning from them and willing to make more informed decisions based on them? Attention is part intention and part habit. We tend to think of freedom as being the ability to choose our actions, but at a subtler level it's about choosing what we pay attention to and how. The trick is to maintain a cool and fluid objectivity that allows us to move on from moment to moment, without getting bogged down by any aspect of our experience. So on the one hand, a conscious cultivation of awareness results in heightened perception, but then we also recognize that we have the ability to both engage with something or seamlessly move on. As the movie "Waking Life" suggests, "The idea is to remain in a state of constant departure, while always arriving."
3. Engagement: Paradoxically, the more consciously our attention can flow unimpeded, the deeper our ability to engage, since we're no longer compelled by the siren song of distraction. Microsoft Ex-Vice President, Linda Stone, coined the term "continuous partial attention," referring to a state in which we constantly and impulsively fragment our attention. In this state of fragmentation, we gain breadth at the cost of depth, and trade in quality for quantity.
But we can flip the pattern at any time. As we invest more fully in our present experience, we move from a passive interest to an active curiosity to full engagement and finally to enchantment. We've breathed magic into everyday moments, realizing that, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, "To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts."
4. Flow: Lather, Rinse, Repeat. Once we are aware, have explicitly made a choice to tune in meaningfully and have infused a fullness into the experience, we can actually string together a bunch of such moments. As activist Lynne Twist says, "what we appreciate, appreciates" -- so the more we concentrate on something, the more it expands in our consciousness. Take a simple example of listening to a friend. Just by continuously pouring our attention into that experience, I perceive the words more richly, I see her reality more clearly, and consequently can interact in the conversation more effectively. So this continuity of attention allows me to more deeply experience and value what is already in front of me, and immerse myself into the actual flow of reality.
Every moment affords an opportunity to start paying attention, and as I do, I realize its gift. First and foremost, it is a gift to my own self, bringing me back to a place of inner alignment. Then, as I start to benefit from it, I can gift it to others. And finally, it is a gift that takes me beyond my own limited notions of identity and self-interest.
It can all begin right now, just with an intention to be aware. That increased awareness opens up windows of choice, and as I start to make more informed choices, I deepen the quality of my experience. In making this a continuous effort, I evolve from unconscious processing, to subconscious registering, to conscious awareness, to engaged learning; or, from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. Instead of just going with the flow, I can actually grow with the flow.