Attention is control. Attention is reality.
When we can’t focus, everything we encounter becomes a potential cause of suffering. I’m unemployed, have been since I quit my job as a janitor in December to hold up for the winter and write.
Now, as the weather warms, it’s time to research the job market again. Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a lot out there. I live in Nowhereville, and I’m too blind to drive, so my options are limited.
As I scrolled through the list of BS jobs, many of which I’m not even qualified for, I felt that old familiar icy shadow pass through me. That whispering dread that only comes when we start to spin our wheels over an unknown future.
I felt my mood darken and my muscles began to tense. Aware of what was happening, I sat up straight, took a breath, and made my attention into a single, unmoving point that had no specific location. As I held it there, the ice melted, and the shadows cleared. Then I made my way to this blog to fling out these lines.
There’s nothing wrong with contemplating the future. In fact, it’s a necessary hazard of living in our culture. But there’s contemplating and planning for the future, and then there’s getting lost in thoughts about the future. There’s a fine line between the two, and it’s easy to slip off of it into total fucking madness.
Controlling attention is what brings us back from that ledge. We turn the spotlight away from wandering thoughts, and place it on something else. This isn’t the same thing as ignoring or suppressing thoughts, it’s just a way of putting our thoughts into context.
While I was worried about finding work, my cat Zoe was looking at me from her perch above. Air was casually move through my nose, and my feet were planted on the floor, hugged by slippers.
These are the kinda things that give our thoughts context. This prevents us from getting swept up by them, it keeps us from catastrophizing.
Because, really, 90% of our thoughts are bullshit because a vast majority have their origin in wandering. We can form whole belief systems and identities from taking wandering thoughts seriously. Wandering thoughts can cause us to harm ourselves and others.
Wandering thoughts are usually totally disjointed from reality. If you can see through them even once, then it’s clear that what we usually call, “Ordinary thinking,” deserves its own label in the DSM-V right alongside other delusional and obsessive disorders.
I like calling it, “Socially Acceptable Psychosis.” It’s the insanity we all share as a species, but since we all share it, none of us consider it abnormal.
But, sanity’s overrated anyway. To be is to be at least a little bit disturbed. It’s unavoidable. That said, w even the can at least give madness a little direction so that it can be a helpful tool.
Without fine-tuned attention, the mind tends to be violent and destructive. It’s still creative, but what it creates is usually harmful or unhelpful. Strengthening attention changes the creative process, it steers us away from harmful and unhelpful complexes and lets us engage helpful ones.
It lets us experience the subtle, mysterious beauty that’s inherent in all things, even ugly things. It shows us simple wonders that were previously unknown to us even though they’ve never been hidden. When life is full of these little wonders, whether I find a decent job or not doesn’t seem quite as important.
When attention is mastered, then beauty is a bargain, and gratitude is free. This doesn’t mean I’m gonna shrug it all off to live as a monk or hobo, just that it isn’t a pressing concern, it’s not a problem. It’s just a task to perform.
If you embody this kind of mindset, you might end up confusing or disappointing more career-driven people. That’s okay. Freedom isn’t without critics. But we’re not responsible for other’s opinions of us; we’re responsible for how we respond to those opinions, and we’re responsible for our own views and the views that we put out into the world.
For many, the path to well-being and freedom is the opposite of glamorous. Simple life is the good life; celebrity teachers and gurus aren’t the norm. I know it might seem like they are, but that’s usually because they have big mouths.
Most teachers and students aren’t like that. We live ordinary lives, and ordinary life doesn’t require as much effort as we’re taught to believe. Our wandering thoughts and grandiose fears and desires are what make it complicated.
Sharpening attention is the first step into uncomplicating our lives. Sustained, directed attention and a nonjudgmental perception are the main foundations for all the work we do.