The flowers of moss on a twig
Moss flowering on a twig
Choose one flower from among the dozens on this twig, on its branch, on a tree, in a wood, among the woods of the world; and attend to it alone

Locke introduces us to the mental faculty of attention. He situates it between rêverie - ideas floating in our mind, and study - where the idea is viewed from all sides, saying "...when the ideas that offer themselves ... are taken notice of, and, as it were, registered in the memory, it is attention ..." Attention to attention waned thereafter until it become popular in psychological research in the 60s and 70s, then, however, its relationship to memory was reversed and researchers such as Donald Norman became interested in how attending led to remembering, and the implications for our normal learning processes.

More recently a growing body of evidence about the underlying neurological processes has been accumulated. One of the leaders in this field is Merzenich and the programs he and his colleagues have developed for assisting new learning and the revival of lost abilities and skills. Here again the critical issue is the need for the individual to 'attend' to the material. More generally Doidge notes the importance of attention for matters of neuroplasticity - the malleability of neural systems. He observes that while infants effortlessly attend to the sounds of language: "After (this) critical period older children and adults can, of course, learn languages, but they really have to work to pay attention." His italics are important, the continuing ability to attend needs training and hard work: while young children may attend with ease, for older people it takes effort.

There is one place where the word attention seems particularly appropriate and that is in meditation. When we settle to meditate we hope to set aside our plans, as well as our memories, and come to the present. To say we concentrate on the present implies an effort or strain. Probably a better word, for this mental process, is simply to attend: to attend to the present. Susan Blackmore, in her stimulating essay 'Paying Attention' explores this idea, noticing how important attending is to crucial parts of our lives. Attending in this context takes two forms. We may attend to one particular sensation, or we may let each sensation take centre stage as it arrives, meaning we attend to what arises. She feels both forms are valuable: "The result seems to be the same whether you begin by paying attention to just one idea or to all."

If we choose to nominate one sensation in advance for our attention often the choice is our breathing, this has many advantages for it is almost always available and perceptible. Having settled on our breath we then seek (every time we mentally wander down some lane of memory or creative plan) to gently return to that breath. So we use the breath as a means of bringing us back to the present. In focusing on our breath, our attention is brought to one point, and so we have an indication of the Buddhist idea of 'one pointedness'.

Alternatively we may attend to what is happening, such as the sound of the rain, a pain in a foot, or the smell of the wet grass, and so allow a current sensation to pick us up and take us along with it, calling attention, exactly not fixing ourselves on one point in advance due to an earlier decision we had made, but rather letting each new sensation be observed, and not excluded.

The way our minds wander off from the present (be it the present stream or a present point) is sometimes perplexing. But this is very much their nature for they have an absolutely essential core task: monitoring all that comes to them. This is their job, so they naturally leap around, like the watchful sentries that they are, on our behalf. There is nothing wrong or bad about this, but with patience we can help our minds improve on other aspects of their work. By retuning to and staying in the present we increase our power to discriminate within what is happening now, and reduce energy which may be wasted rummaging around in our voluminous baggage of past events. This increased discrimination and attention to what is before us, is especially valuable as we go about our normal lives, allowing us to act more easily, decide more clearly and relax more fully.

The concept of attention is used in disparate ways. But everywhere it stands near the epicentre of our consciousness; the still eye in the swirling mass of thoughts. Single minded concentration seeks to raise the focus of these thoughts above the extraneous, above those yapping voices of the puppies of memory and apprehension.

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  • Locke, John (1690) 'An Essay Concerning Human Understanding' [Abridged by A.S.Pingle-Pattison (1924) Oxford. (II 19 1/p. 133)]
  • Norman, Donald (1969) 'Memory and Attention'. John Wiley
  • Doidge, Norman (2007) 'The Brain that changes itself'. Penguin (p. 78).

  22nd August 2014 ~ 6th May 2015