by Richard Smoley
New Dawn No. 132 (May-June 2012)
June 15, 2014
from NewDawnMagazine Website
According to a recent
study conducted at Harvard University, it's because people have such
terrible attention spans.
They recorded a speaker answering a question about universal health care (a controversial issue in the US).
Then they attached the same answer to three separate questions:
Amazingly, subjects found the speaker just as trustworthy when he gave the response about health care to a question about illegal drug use - a related but different subject - as when he responded to the original question about health care.
Moreover, when quizzed
immediately afterward, almost none of the subjects could remember
exactly what question had been asked.
Poor attention is,
Another, related reason is that when people are listening to a speaker, they are taking in nonverbal signals such as,
In short, even when doing
something as simple as listening to a speaker, the audience is
overwhelmed by information, enabling politicians to dodge answers
without appearing to.
Faced with economic and social crisis, and haunted by the spectre of global conflict, famine, and environmental collapse, people are demanding change.
At the same time, however, there is a widespread suspicion of all political and economic ideologies.
World civilization at
this point is like a sick man who shifts restlessly in bed, unable
to find a comfortable position. It may be that what is needed is not
a change in ideologies, but a change in consciousness.
The twentieth-century spiritual teacher G.I. Gurdjieff said,
The contemporary Tibetan lama Tarthang Tulku writes,
Could they be saying that
it's our poor capacity for attention that is keeping us in cognitive
How does this work in practice?
One Gurdjieffian teacher pointed out to me how, under ordinary circumstances, when you look out the window, your attention goes with it. In a certain sense you go out the window as well. Your sense of yourself is lost.
To counter this, he suggested that when you look out a window, you keep some attention for yourself, even if it's something as simple as a conscious awareness of a hand or a foot.
For Tarthang Tulku, the answer lies along a slightly different route.
He believes that our failure of attention has to do with a deep-seated fear of discomfort. Our suffering goes on under the surface, and we refuse to touch it out of avoidance of the emotional pain that it would bring.
One alternative that he recommends is not only to touch the pain, but to explore it - to feel it as fully as possible.
Going directly into
psychological pain in this way will often transform it into a new,
dynamic, and more creative energy.
In this the seed of will is sown.
The British occultist Charles R. Tetworth writes about the training of a magician:
While some of this passage may have little bearing on us - not many people will be able to hold an image in their minds for a solid hour - it provides some genuine, and important, guidelines for living in the midst of today's turmoils.
The key practice is - however you manage to do it - to cultivate a centre of attention in yourself. You can do this right now, by closing your eyes and sitting attentively for a few minutes.
At first you let your attention go to your bodily sensations, however they present themselves:
Then you let your
attention go to the flow of thoughts, images, and emotions that pass
before the mind's eye. You will soon realize that you can watch
these thoughts come into awareness like images on a screen, and pass
away again just as readily.
It is not the body; the body is part of what is being observed. Nor is it the stream of thoughts that flow across the screen of the mind. You will rapidly find that you can observe them as from a distance.
And if there is some
distance, however slight, between you and thoughts, this immediately
proves that the thoughts are not you.
It will enable you, to use Tetworth's words,
It will also free you from enslavements to such things as opinions, the current fashions of belief, and, what is perhaps most important, the subtle but debilitating attachment to your self-concept as a "good person."
If you pursue the inquiry of self-observation far enough, you will find that these opinions and self-concepts are merely what you have absorbed from the media, from advertising, from your family, from your friends.
You will also discover
that you have encompassed yourself in a circle. You read opinions
that already mirror your own. You listen to "experts" who merely
confirm what you believe already. You support politicians who appeal
to your own fears and delusions.
And you will notice that in and of themselves they do not present any brilliant solutions to the world's multifold problems.
But if you apply them,
you will be a more conscious being, and you will be more free of the
delusions and anxieties that press so heavily on the human race.
A long work, in which you begin to become aware of your own special function - that is, the role that you can play to help the world most effectively. It may or may not mean embracing a cause or political program.
Instead it may, for example, involve working quietly as a light shining in the dark corridors of an apparently soulless corporation.
It does not matter:
As you move deeper into
your reaches that some teachings call the Self or the "true I," the
more this function will come into focus for you, and you will be
able to become a powerful force for change rather than a weak,
worried, and anxious consumer.