What Gets Your Attention?


 What gets your attention? Indeed, what do you habitually turn towards? Or, conversely, what do you regularly turn away from?  

 Please do not say that where you look doesn’t matter as you shrug the question off muttering, 'To each his own,' or, 'All the matters is one’s personal preference,' or, 'You do your thing and I’ll do mine.' 

 Such careless statements may reveal a nonchalance, an unthinking and passive acceptance of whatever comes one’s way. Uncritically, persons like this make statements such as, 'I like all kinds of music,' 'I’ll eat anything,' or, 'All religions are the same.’  Such lifeless, dreary statements! 

 I feel deflated in response to such colourless phrases and wish to ask: 'Is your universe really that dull? You are that blasé about everything? You glibly make references to enjoying all music, all kinds of food, and all religions? Oh c’mon? Kick into gear, please!   

 It strikes me that for someone who has at least some substance and character, a level of discernment will exist about what he allows into his life and what he won’t.

 Not just anything will do for such a one. For a discriminating person, the philosophy is: 'This will do, but that won’t.’ 

 Such a one knows that choices are always to be made and he wants to make the best choices he can. He’s like admirable great chefs or conductors who have come to know through long effort and experimentation that 'this is worthwhile and that isn’t.’ 

 And we who feast upon the great chef’s skillfully prepared selections or who hear the great conductor’s highly trained orchestra, reap the benefits.

 People like this have been carefully distinguishing between what’s great and what isn’t, what's false and what's true, what's good and what's bad, the real and the unreal, for many years, as a way of life.    

 It seems to me that as soon as someone unthinkingly claims that one direction is as good as another, the effect is to knock the wind out of the sails of the passionate search for the things that matter, for the things that truly count, for essential things. 

 So I have a protest against the constant relativizing made by the 'everything is the same' crowd. I think that their passivity is antithetical to the noble search for high ideals and values.

 Clearly, it matters a great deal where each of us choose to direct our gaze - what each of us chooses to contemplate. For in all of life, certain things will 'lift you up,' while others will 'take you down.' 

 It matters a great deal what gets your attention and what does not. It matters what you gravitate towards. It matters what you steer clear from. It truly matters that you avoid some things like the plague.

 The direction you go in has consequences. Going down that path is not the same as going down this one. One path will take you home. The other path will get you lost.

 Furthermore, what gets my attention, what I notice and care about, informs everyone about my character, or lack thereof.

 What gets my attention and what I avoid, reveals the quality of my inner life and the quality of my character. 

 You may have had the disheartening experience I’ve had of learning that someone about whom you had a good opinion is interested in some soul depleting activity! We think upon hearing it: 'He cares about that?! That’s what he spends his time doing? He goes there? And hangs with that crowd? He lives in that gutter for entertainment? Oh dear. I hoped it wasn’t true when I heard it.' 

 On the other hand, you hear that someone you’ve been getting to know happens to love Gorecki’s Third Symphony and, well, you think, this points to a certain capacity in him for wonder, depth and beauty. And I think: 'I’m so impressed that he loves that quality and depth of music! I didn’t know he had that in him! Apparently he does! I’m impressed and would like to know him better! 

 Thus, everyone’s effect is either to depress or to inspire. Where they’ve been looking and focusing is what is making all the difference.

 Some years ago I received a strong dose of inspiration when a new girlfriend came to visit. This blond pulled up to my parent’s home in a yellow convertible and then bounded towards the front door, her arms full of records and books. It was quite the sight to behold and I’ve never recovered from the impact. 

 When the blond played the music and referenced the books, I was entranced. I thought: 'She loves this level of music and this quality of books? This is some kind of impressive chick!' I thought: 'She's for me, and I married her.’ That was thirty-nine years ago. And, as I said, I’m still recovering and trust I never will.

 It just matters so much what we allow into our fields of vision. I was twenty years of age when I took a course at Regent College in Vancouver. That’s where I first saw the blond. A while later, I took a weekend course at a church called Inductive Bible Study. There she was again. I had been looking in the direction of spiritual environments. I found treasure in those locations.

 Directing my attention towards those places rather than others, profoundly effected the direction my life took.

 If I had chosen to direct my attention elsewhere I could have ended up with a very different kind of woman. By now I might have been through several of these. 

 It is this theme of the direction of our attention that the third century philosopher, Plotinus, emphasized in his writings.

 Plotinus, about whom it is said, turned philosophy into spirituality, said things like: "We are always before the Supreme, but we do not always look." That is, we are always that close to the highest, the ultimate, the truthto God. There is no secret. The truth of God is clearly and plainly seen by everyone. This knowledge is always accessible. But we miss seeing it. Why? Because, foolishly, we are turning away from it.  

 Plotinus likened the direction of our attention to the case of a choir member who turns away from the choir director to express his independence.

 He turns away from the centre to sing his own tune in his own way. In the words of Plotinus, he "holds himself aloof," and fails to "attend to the centre." 

 The result of the detachment is, says, Plotinus, "loneliness," and the experience of being “lessened," that is, diminished. No fulfillment does he find through his act of rebellion. Only loneliness and depletion.

 The movement away from the centre creates disharmony. Turning away,  puts the choir member out of sync, out of rhythm, with the centre. Perhaps for a while he feels deliriously happy beating on his own little drum or singing out his flat little tune but, but not for long. Eventually, the discord will manifest in all kinds of distortions.  

 For the fact is that one's best voice, and greatest fulfillment, is discovered when one's attention is directly squarely at the conductor, putting oneself in accord with him. 

 In turning towards the centre, the choir member, in Plotinus’s words, "faces aright." With the result then that he "sings with beauty.” It is the "the end of singing ill.” "Our being is the fuller," says Plotinus,"for our turning thitherThis is "our prosperity," and our "soul’s peace.”

 The action of turning towards the centre, towards the light, effects deep changes in the fully participating singer. 

 The emphasis here is what Pierre Hadot, an expert on Plotinus, has called "the conversion of attention."  

 When, in like manner, we turn away from the centre, from the Light or God, we are living far from the real. In such a distant and detached state, we are becoming dimly lit creatures. Our way now is to live a dimly lit existence.

 Thus we might ask: What gets the attention of dimly lit beings? Welldim lights tend to be drawn to articifical lighting, to neon light.

 Thus, dim lights are always on their way to Vegas or returning from it. Their attention is directed towards the latest sensations, whatever these might be. Dimly lit, such persons direct their attention to all that glitters and glows, which is attention paid to the immediate gratification that comes from sensory bombardment. Dimly lit beings are all about loud music and what shocks and titillates. 

 But, warns the poet, John O’Donohue, you’ll never find peace living like this, for neon lights are harsh lights. They will burn you and burn you out! 

 That's because, says O’Donohue, artificial light isn’t "gentle or reverent. It lacks graciousness. It has no respect for space or for mystery. It swallows you whole. The fake light only exhausts and obliterates.  

 The fact is that when the neon lights are flashing and glaring, our souls cannot appear. The articifical lighting is too harsh to befriend the soul. It is "not hospitable to what is reserved and hidden." (John O’Donohue, Anam Cara, A Book of Celtic Wisdom, p. 80) 

 In contrast to that, is someone in search of the real who directs her attention away from ‘sensate immediacy’ towards the centre, where the real light shines.

 O’Donohue compares the real light to candelight, calling it an "ideal light" that "befriends the darkness and prompts the imagination into activity.” Emerging now is what O’Donohue calls "candlelight perception." 

 Thus there is a huge contrast to be made between our possible directions of attention. Our choice can be to move towards candelight illumination or towards the blitzkrieg of artificial lighting. The effects of turning one way or the other, are huge.

 The Plotinus expert Pierre Hadot advises us to "Close your eyes and open yourself up to a faculty which all possess, though few use."

 It is that faculty of attention within that Plotinus called the the ‘intellect.’ This is sometimes referenced as the ‘mind’s eye’ or the 'third eye.’

 It is a faculty of perception, a capacity for pure seeing, that awakens when our attention is turned towards the Light, towards the Centre.

 The point is to get our attention away from the world of sensory bombardment and soul deprivation and instead to focus one’s attention on the Light, the Centre, which will fully light up a hitherto dimly lit existence.