The Attention of the Eagle

Beyond Conditioning: The Mystery of Interior Sight

There is a deep level of mystery that is discernible even in ordinary life. We can occasionally realize “what we are thinking,” occasionally recognize we are “lying to ourselves,” see our “daydreams,” experience an insight that shifts our orientation. Something lies within our psychological experience that appears to operate from beyond the conditioned neurological- biochemical-material three “brains”, or areas of functionality (intellect, feeling, sensation) within the body. This ‘something’ appears unexpectedly for brief moments, offering the possibility of escape from the trap of a conditioned ‘mind.’

Part of the illusion created by our programed reactions is the belief that we operate out of this ‘freer’ something on a regular basis. In fact, the moments spent in this ‘freer’ state are rare and brief. Meditation is the pathway to strengthening and training of this ‘higher’ something, or our connection with it. Without this as foundation, there is no possibility of freedom sufficient to begin to “know thyself”.

Studying these processes, learning what is, and what is not possible, requires attention. How to bring the correct quality of attention, for sufficient duration, to focus in the correct direction with an understanding of what to look for, is a process that can only be discovered by the individual through solitary effort, albeit with the guidance of someone already practiced in the method. Direction for the study of one’s interior experiential world requires the training of a special type of attention. It is this special type of attention that Gurdjieff’s method offers as a solution.

Qualities of Attention

Observation can confirm that attention comes in three basic varieties or qualities. The most prevalent is a ‘mechanical’ attention with no real ‘will’ of its own. It is free-floating, undirected and flows like heat. It will be automatically pulled towards the nearest, strongest attractor at the moment, then ‘fall’, over and over, again toward the next thing that “captures” the attention. It is mechanical because there is no plan or intent behind it. Buddhism calls this “monkey mind.” Everyone knows and has wrestled with this level of “distractibility.” We say, “The lights are on, but nobody is home.” Often, we cannot recall afterwards what it was we were listening to, looking at, thinking, during this period of random association, nor what happened to trigger it. This is our normal state of attention the vast majority of time. This can be called Mechanical Attention as there is no intention behind it and it flows according to mechanically conditioned associational chains.

Occasionally, an attractor of sufficient interest engages us emotionally and we are “caught,” “riveted,” held by our interest for long periods of time, sometimes even “against our will.” This is a focused attention out of the ordinary. We can experience this with a book, a movie, a morbid situation, a car crash, sexual images, something fascinating to such a degree we become oblivious to our surroundings, even to the point of not hearing our name called. This type of attention can be called ‘Emotional’ Attention because it is magnetized and held by a feeling of attraction. It has an aim, but the aim comes from the fascination with the attractor. It is not predetermined ahead of time, or held in place, by one’s own will.

The third, and most rare, type of attention is that which is directed by one’s own decision prior to the contact with the object of attention. A continual effort must be made to maintain the focus of attention against the pull of the mechanical and emotional levels. Attention must be sustained by the force of one’s own choice and effort. It is usually brief in duration and must be continually renewed. This can be called ‘Directed’ Attention.  What seems to lie behind the effort to focus directed attention is a mysterious ‘something’ that can occasionally ‘see’ into the mind and feelings from beyond the usual conditioned habits.

Training Attention

In traditional meditation, it is this ‘something’ that is engaged to initiate and direct its focus on a mantra, using the mantra as ‘home base,’ which serves as a point of stability. By intentionally choosing this focal point with a specific aim in mind, the directed attention is engaged. The frequent mechanical drift away from the mantra is sooner noticed and a directed return of attention to the focal point easier to reinitiate. The mantra is typically a sound, image or sensation (such as the breath or the sensation of the physical body in part or whole) or prayer of a neutral to positive emotional quality. Making this quality the object of attention decreases, or even eliminates for a while, negative thinking and feelings that trigger physiological stress responses in the first and second (body or feeling) ‘brains’. With this hiatus in the usual flow of conditioned experiences, negativity, worry, complaining, planning, reviewing conversations past or rehearsal, all three ‘brains’ begin to quiet and the experience of relaxation begins. This respite in psychosomatic tension is beneficial for health and trains a person to learn to use directed attention for relief from conditioned thinking and reactions to life, real and imagined. Practiced for a long time, the resultant tranquility may lead to deeper understanding of one’s hidden nature, and in some traditions, to degrees of liberation from illusions of life and ordinary self.

Restructuring the Brain

Psycho-neurological research has confirmed that the underlying mechanism for learning rests on the plasticity of the brain. When presented with new information or experiences, the brain literally begins to rewire neuronal connections to accommodate the new task. If that rewiring does not take place, there is no learning. Our brains are continually altering their physical structure in response to experience. The brains of meditators reflect changes from that activity and are different from the brains of non-meditators. We not only change our minds, but we literally change our brains to do so. Because of this fact, the great meditative traditions have found a way to transform their practitioners into types of people different from the ordinary.

Through meditation the attention can become steadier, more capable of sustained focus, less susceptible to being continually drawn into conditioned pathways organized around worry, resentment, living in the past or future. One is better able to focus on what is actually happening in the moment with less mental/emotional overlay from memories of the past or speculation about the future, which distort the accuracy of interpreting the actual moment at hand.

Divided Attention

To bring a practice that offered the possibility of more rapid psycho-transformation and could be practiced in the flow of daily life, Gurdjieff suggested using directed attention, as is done in other practices, but rather than a single focal point, dividing attention into two or more points simultaneously.  Using the interior of the body as a starting point, attention can be grounded in one or more locations by engaging sensation as the link. Holding open a space between the director/observer of attention and one or more sensitized points inside the body, allows an experience of the observer as distinct from the body. Attention can then be directed onto thoughts, feelings, attitudes, simultaneously, while holding open this space. The experiential distance between observer and what is observed allows the possibility of noticing qualities of subjectivity within the thoughts, feelings, attitudes, interpretations that make up the stream of activity typically understood as ‘oneself.’ As the limitation and subjectivity of the content of these psychic processes are recognized, deeper levels of sincerity and objectivity can arise. “Know Thyself” means first learning what is not thyself, but rather a mechanical pattern of psychological/emotional/muscular reactions and responses to the conditioning mechanism of life. A separation of the wheat from the chaff requires an instrument of separation.

Gurdjieff also suggests using the potential of divided attention to look ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ at the same time, what his pupil Peter Ouspensky called a “double-headed arrow.” How else could one discover a more accurate understanding of why one’s life is the way it seems to be than by learning to watch oneself in life, in the moment, as if one were watching another person? By developing directed attention to watch what we believe constitutes ‘oneself’  and the interior psychological/emotional responses described above — while at the same time watching the world immediately outside, including the outer movements of the body, interacting with this interior‘ oneself, the interactions between life and one’s responses become visible. The pattern of one’s life becomes understandable as dependent on the pattern of one’s thoughts, assumptions, attitudes, interpretations of meaning. The subjectiveness, arbitrariness, unnecessariness of many of these reactions becomes apparent. With the seeing of these links from this different perspective, something may begin to change. A different relationship, a different understanding begins to form.

The experience of working with divided attention focused on our outside movements and vocalizations, simultaneously with our interior psychological states, brings into view the question of what is directing the directed attention? What is making the decisions regarding the objects of focus? What is absorbing and learning from the new impressions flowing in from this new observational system?

There may then arise a wish to direct attention deeper to discover its source.  This becomes the foundation of a rationally-based search for the mystery of Self.

(Stephen Aronson is the author of the recently published: The Search For Meaning and The Mystery of Consciousness: A Psychologist’s Journey Through Gurdjieff and Jung