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December 22nd, 2018
Try for a moment, this simple exercise: Try to turn your attention to the thing in your mind that is paying attention.
Or to put this another way: can you turn your attention upon some thing within you that is understanding this sentence?
It’s a very difficult to merely hold as a concept in one’s mind – let alone begin to execute. It is a mental exercise that is used in Dzogchen meditation practice and is much the subject of Douglas Harding’s book entitled ‘on having no head’.
Harding uses the fact that you can never directly witness or see your own head, positing that the use of a mirror is an indirect experience. Remembering that the prefix ‘re-‘ at the beginning of the word reflection means ‘again’ might help illuminate the idea that any reflection is a kind of second-hand experience.
We might for a moment wonder about how much a blind person identifies with the image of their own face. Surely such a person would be familiar with the tactile contours of their own face, but it’s impossible to identify with the image of one’s own face if blind. In this respect with regards to the face, it would be akin to going through life without ever coming across any kind of reflective surface.
Even in such a fantastical world that would presumably be cured of narcissism, there is still plenty to focus on, and even if the head and face remains elusive, we have little reason to seek out the seat of our attention.
If for a moment however, we visualize our attention as a kind of spotlight which can be trained on definitive objects, whether that light be shining on the sensations of breath while meditating or upon some problem we seek to solve or some person with whom we speak, this subject-object relationship becomes easier to work with.
We talk about laser-like focus which already encapsulates this idea of attention like a beam of light with which we illuminate the nature of the thing upon which we concentrate.
Our existence starts to look like that small iconic lamp featured in the presentation of the name ‘Pixar’ at the beginning of movies.
Now imagine, with a head like a lamp, or a powerful spotlight, or even a laser, looking in a mirror. Think about how disorienting this would be to suddenly be blinded.
We can even imagine wearing a headlamp in a dark room, training the light on different objects we are working with, and then accidentally looking in a mirror and being blinded by our own effort to focus.
Such is a kind of visual analogy for the experience of trying to turn attention upon itself.
The experience is disorienting because eerily, it doesn’t seem like any thing or anyone is really home.
Everything that might seem like the seat of attention is actually just shining that spotlight on something else other than itself.
If the responsive thought is “this is ridiculous, the seat of attention is in my head.” This is actually retraining attention upon that linguistic sentence. Which is akin to giving someone a description of what chocolate tastes like and expecting them to fully comprehend the taste of chocolate even though they’ve never tasted it. The thought about the seat of attention is simply another new thought that is occupying our attention.
The origin of attention is elusive, but trying to find it is a valuable exercise for decoupling our feelings, thoughts and actions from an overly determined and unhelpful sense of self.
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