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The Tinkered Mind
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April 7th, 2022
Familiarity breeds blindness. The same daily walk to the bus stop or the grocery store eventually makes everything invisible. We stride along on autopilot, ignorant to the details because there’s little point paying attention to what we already know. The mind has more important things to occupy itself with: anxieties about the future, regrets and ruminations stemming from the past. The worrisome fact here is that much about our surroundings can change - even drastically - without our notice. This is simply an aspect of how the visual system works in the brain. Despite the fact that it certainly seems like we have a handle of what we see around ourselves, the fact is we are ignoring almost all of it and constantly hallucinating a vaguely accurate periphery.
One of the true gifts that comes with an able manipulation and command of attention is an ability to become fascinated with the familiar. A practice like mindfulness can eventually enable a person to dilate their focus, refine it’s resolution on a subject, a situation, or an experience, and playing around with these toggles can make life gleam with a kind of humble wonder like what we all experienced as kids. Any given moment of life can become fresh and overwhelmingly interesting with the correct variety of attention.
It seems a strange wonder that we aren’t all universally obsessed with the mental exercise and ability that controls and augments attention directly. We are indirectly obsessed with it: the entire industries of productivity and time management really just boil down to different systems, hacks and techniques for augmenting attention in a predictable and planned way. Strangely, very few of these hacks, techniques and systems actually address the root issue: how to I control my own attention?
Perhaps phrased this way it seems like too big of a topic too abstract, ethereal, and in some realms, even religious. It’s an accurate statement that the majority of Buddhist teaching and text is devoted to this very topic: the what and how of attention.
Think about this for a moment: the simple topic of attention. Within this topic exist all other topics. Motivation? Perspective? These are varieties and instances of particular types of attention. Even an emotion - if we decide to pay attention to it acts more like a lens or a filter for attention. The emotion tints whatever we pay attention to. Anger paints everything with a dark and seething tint of vengeance. And a sense of wonder tints everything with a child like gleam.
What exactly is a drug if not a forced augmentation with regards to attention? Pain medication removes pain from our attention, while alcohol seems to simultaneously expand and blur attention. And of course psychedelics are the ultimate in contortionist-level yoga stretching for the mind. Not convinced, then why is everyone drinking coffee?
We cajole and bully our attention, but we don’t pay it much actual attention. Ironic - to an eye-rolling degree. But this is all something like a mindfulness practice boils down to. Serious meditators aren’t seeking nirvana nor relaxation so much as they are just simply trying to pay attention to their current state of attention. Usually this takes the form of a thought, which needs to be recognized for what it is - a simple and routine permutation of consciousness, and once recognized it pops and disappears. Meditators generally try to pay attention to their breath because that’s simply something that’s always happening, and must happen, so it has a certain consistency that thoughts, emotions, and virtually all other objects of consciousness lack. The breath is consistent and fairly straight forward. But so much time spent with an infuriatingly simple task ultimately expands the minds ability to every other aspect of life.
With the right pilot in control, attention can be molded to find even the most mundane and familiar aspects of life intensely fascinating. A simple walk through the grocery store can suddenly become an awe inspiring experience of pleasant weirdness and wonder.