How Should We Pay Attention

In my youth I used to observe how bar fights often start. The beginning of bar fights would often include someone saying, “What are you looking at?” We have two ways to pay attention. The one is expressed in the statement, “He’s looking at me,” and the other one is expressed in the statement, “He’s listening to me.” I’d like you to just feel: is there any difference to the feeling in the statements, “He’s looking at me” and “He’s listening to me”? For most people there’s a difference.

If you say, “He’s looking at me” it feels aggressive… The “what are you looking at?” that accompanies the beginning of many bar fights is an act of aggression. It is an act of aggression that is precipitated by the looking which is itself an act of aggression. The looking that precipitates many bar fights is an act of aggression because looking is predatory.

Predatory and Receptive Attention

You see, if you think about how a lion’s eyes work, they’re in the front of its head. Why are the lion’s eyes in the front of its head? Because it possesses binocular vision that allows it to have depth perception which enables it to isolate its prey out of the rest of its environment so that it can effectively catch it. Depth perception allows goal-directed attention. It allows you to behave like a predator. It allows you to go and get things that you want.

So, there’s one way of the use of our attention: which is about looking, being like a lion, being goal-directed, pursuing things that we want. And what keeps this attention operative is our internal dialogue because our internal dialogue keeps telling us “it’s not good enough. I want more.” So, then we go around literally like lions isolating our objectives and ruthlessly pursuing them and this produces conflict.

The second way of using attention is receptive. It is not borne in the statement “he’s looking at me” but in the statement “he’s listening to me”. The difference between the two is that when he’s looking at me, he’s kind of penetrating me, I have become an objective. Whereas when he’s listening to me, I’m penetrating him. He’s allowing me into him.

Receptive attention is about submission and submission is not predatory. Submission is what the buck does rather than what the lion does. If you think about where the buck’s eyes sit relative to its head, they’re not in the front of its head; they’re on the side of the head. Why are the buck’s eyes on the side of its head? So that the buck can see what’s coming towards it, not what it is going towards.

So, we have two ways to use our attention – predatory and receptive. The character of receptive attention is silence. I mean, just as you sit there, just pay attention to that noise of the coffee grinder. Just listen to it for a minute – and the voices in the background. How much are you thinking right now? Probably very little! You see, you’re hearing it. When you give attention to something that’s going on you can’t think. Your attention is receptive, and you allow the world into you untarnished by any objectives.

Receptive attention means that in that moment you give attention to things that are going on; you are perceiving the world itself and not some very limited part of it defined by your objectives. Operating with receptive attention has a calming effect. It has the passivity of appreciation and it produces harmony.

One can deliberate about making one’s attention receptive. Choose a couple of colours, choose a couple of sounds and allow these to occupy your whole attention. Even before you have a meeting, before you start talking to the person, just pay attention to a couple of sounds in the room and give attention to a couple of colours in the room; calm yourself down and suspend your objectives. As you get into your car spend a minute. Just feel the car. Get a couple of scents out of the car. What does the car smell like? What are a couple of colours in the car? What are the sounds you can hear around you? In this way you can make your attention receptive and become present in the world. You’ll find there’s a calmer, more appreciative person at the end of this.

What’s keeping the story of predatory attention going is that there’s a tape recorder that’s running in the back of your head telling you that you need to achieve this objective and attain that goal. So how do you switch off the tape recorder? Well, you just withdraw attention from it because it takes attention for it to carry on. You withdraw attention by putting attention on what’s going on around you, by becoming present.

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