Fresh eyes

The mind runs along well-trodden ruts, and it does this by design. As we explained in Let there be no difference made, the mind would quickly become overwhelmed if it was necessary to fully process all stimuli received by the senses which would, apart from other things, be an enormous survival disadvantage.

Suppose we are cavemen, and we have roamed t0 an unfamiliar area and found a nice cave to make a home in. An early and necessary task will be to locate a safe route to water. Being unfamiliar with the territory, it would behoove the mind to play close attention to its surroundings. There may be various dangers, including bogs and quicksand, slippery rocks, hornets’ nests, and protruding tree roots, which could be hazardous to miss. We would also want to pay close attention to landmarks and other signs which will enable us to both find our way back, and to find our way to the water again on future trips. We may want to keep an eye out for animal tracks, fruit trees and bushes, and other possible resources which may come in handy. There are, in short, many reasons to pay close attention to the unfamiliar so that it may become familiar.

However, once we are familiar with the route, there is much less reason to pay attention. Moreover, there could be a reason why we would positively want to pay less attention – namely, because it frees up attention for other tasks, such as keeping an eye out for lions, or planning a power struggle against the local caveman chief. Having excess processing power in the brain may generally be considered to be a good thing, so anything the brain can do to increase that power may be helpful.

Once we are familiar with a route, and we know that, for instance, there are no bogs or quicksand along it, then there is no benefit in continuing to look out for them. Once we’re familiar with all the sources of resources in the area, there is no benefit in continuing to look out for them, either. Once we are familiar with a route, a lot of stimuli received by the senses become greatly reduced in importance compared to when we were unfamiliar with it, and needed to scope it out.

The brain achieves this by constructing a mental model of the route. As far as the route itself goes, the brain can limit itself to processing just those stimuli which are necessary to confirm to it the accuracy of the route – e.g. to confirm that a large tree didn’t fall across it in the night – and to confirm that we are, indeed, staying on that route. The rest of the stimuli which would have been useful in forming that mental model can be filtered out by the brain, leaving more of a finite amount of processing power available for other tasks.

This particular example should be familiar to most people. When we drive to a new location, we notice a lot more than we usually do. We notice the shapes the mountains make on the horizon, the colours of the front doors of houses visible from the highway, as well as signs, billboards, and curious garden ornaments. We catch brief glimpses of vistas through a gap in the trees, or between buildings, and wonder what the rest of the picture looks like. We notice rock formations off to the side of the road, and that the grass in the central reservation has been recently mowed. We notice the cat grooming itself outside that ramshackle-looking country store, and the cows grazing in the far corner of that field.

On our regular commute to work, however, which we’ve made hundreds of times before, we may pay so little attention that we suddenly find ourselves arriving and realising that we’ve made the entire journey from home almost unconsciously, on auto-pilot. There is just as much richness and interest in our familiar surroundings as there were in the unfamiliar surroundings, but that very familiarity causes us to pay less attention to it, to limit our processing to only that amount which is required to prevent us from driving off the road, or taking a wrong turn – just enough to confirm that our ingrained mental model of that commute is matching up well enough to reality.

This, of course, is not confined to journeying. When we try a new food, we pay far more attention to its texture and taste, compared to the bowl of cornflakes we eat every day while paying attention to nothing but our thoughts that the taxes are due at the end of this week. When we shower, we can afford to be completely obviously of the feel of the running water, and instead focus our attention on those fuses we need to buy at the hardware store on the way home.

As we said, there are very good reasons why the brain is designed to minimise processing of familiar stimuli. The downside is that we can end up living almost entirely in an imaginary world. As usually becomes apparent when we travel, the real world is actually quite a nice place. The imaginary world of unpaid taxes, broken lawnmowers, and deadlines at work is not nearly so pleasant, on the other hand. A great amount of dissatisfaction with the world comes from this tendency to simply not pay attention to it, and to mistake the imaginary world for the real one. When substantially your entire perception of the world consists of the thoughts you have about all the problems you have to solve today, it shouldn’t be surprising if one starts to take a slightly negative view to it.

It is a good practice, therefore, to deliberately make an effort to pay attention to what is actually happening in the real world. There is really no need to go to the trouble of labeling this as a formal “practice” or to start giving it names like “mindfulness” – it’s just living, just taking a moment from time to time to get out of your head and to focus on what’s out there. The morning routine, including the morning commute, is an ideal place to begin, since there tends to be a series of relatively rapidly varying stimuli, and it starts the day on a good note.

Repeated application in this goes a long way towards developing a conscious sense of the “unreality” of the imaginary world, and a corresponding sense of confidence in the richness and accessibility of the real world. The ingenuity of the brain in distracting its owner from paying attention to the world is staggering, and one of the most persistently difficult tasks for the aspirant is not so much the tendency to drop back into believing in the imaginary world, but to do that without even being aware that he’s doing it. As we’ve said many times here, one of the biggest obstacles to the task is in figuring out exactly what the task is, and many of the “occult” and “magical” practices which focus exclusively on the imagination and the contents of the mind serve only to exacerbate this obstacle. By regularly making an effort to transfer the attention outside of the mind altogether the aspirant can consolidate an increasing familiarity with the real world and an increasing ability to distinguish the imaginary world from it. There is nothing like a regular return to the real world to keep the aspirant on track, as it tends to prevent one imagination building on another unchecked until it forms such a tangent that it may be difficult to find its way back.

The essence of Thelemic practice is founded on a progressive attempt to reduce the extent to which the mind clouds the perception of the world and the self, to remove the imaginary restrictions which veil that perception. The best way to do this is not to undertake “magical” practices, but to simply begin paying more attention to the world, and to start making a conscious attempt to regularly get out of the imaginary world, and into the real world, in one’s daily life. This is not a “practice” to be done with an end in mind, but one to be engaged in for its own sake, since paying attention to the world is, indeed, an end in itself.

One Comment on “Fresh eyes”

By Abstracted. May 12th, 2010 at 5:05 am

I think Chogyam Trungpa said that the practice of meditation was much like training wheels on a bicycle, and that beyond a point those training wheels can become unhelpful. In meditation, I think one way it can be unhelpful is that you stop meditating for its own sake, and start treating it as some sort of serious goal.

Paying attention to the world only when doing sitting meditation has it’s limits anyway. Just because you can pay attention while doing meditation, doesn’t mean you’ll pay attention when life throws a curve ball your way.

In this sense, paying attention in different situations (such as when you’re driving or in the shower) is helpful because makes your attention more resilient under new and unexpected circumstances.

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