We have two broad ways of using our 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.” The way we use our attention makes the world of difference to how we experience the world, and makes the world of difference to the way others experience us.
One of the ways we can use our attention is about looking, it is about focus, being goal-directed, pursuing things that we want. What keeps this attention operative is an internal dialogue directed towards the pursuit of something. This is why I like to call this predatory attention, it is how our attention operates when we want to “catch something”. It is like the focus of a predator. From this standpoint, we literally operate like lions, isolating our objectives in order to pursue them.
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. Perhaps to put the point more simply, this is about being open to the world, but focus is about being closed off to the world for the sake of pursuing an objective.
It is also correct to say that receptive attention is about submission, in other words, the letting go of the insistence of achieving an objective. Submission is what the antelope does rather than what the lion does. If you think about where the antelope’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 antelope’s eyes on the side of its head? So that it 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 ‘inner silence’. By this I mean when we give unfocused attention to things going on around us, our internal dialogues quite down. When you give attention to something that’s actually going on, you can’t think. Your attention is receptive and you allow the world into you, uncoloured by any objectives.
Receptive attention means that in that moment you give attention to things that are actually going on; you are actually perceiving the world itself and not some very limited part of it defined by your objectives. Operating with receptive attention thus has a calming effect. It produces tranquility in oneself, and promotes an appreciation of harmony between things. Receptive attention is a much more effective place to operate from. We do need predatory attention at times, we need to be focused when the time comes, but if we live only from the place of focus and do not live enough from a more receptive place, we will typically experience conflict and frustration and will be experienced as insensitive and intrusive.
One can be 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 give attention to a couple of sounds in the room and give attention to it, 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 colors 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.