Giving Attention to Attention

Consider the optical illusion of the old woman/young woman. You see one or the other; and then you see the one you did not see first. Once you know what you are looking for, you can move between the two with ease.

One image, two interpretations (query: are there more interpretations? Could there be?) optical_illusion_old_ldayHowever, you cannot see both at one time. You can know that both exist, but your powers of perceptions limit you to perceiving one interpretation or the other.

This is a handy way of noticing how being a human observer entails both cognitive and perceptual limits, and that those limits are restrictions by which a world with which we can safely and productively interact comes into being.

One of the things we can learn from images like this is that perception is interpretative to some degree. “Interpretative” in this case means that our brains process information in certain ways – taking shortcuts, filling in blanks, correcting for familiarity and function. It does this quickly and efficiently (but not always correctly) and entirely without the consent or involvement of any decision-maker. One can imagine the negative fitness consequences of constantly assessing and reassessing perception. By the time you figured out it was a tiger bearing down on you, you’d be dead.

Again, there is no discrete “self” who is directing this activity – deciding to see at all, deciding what to see and what to not see, what to call what we is seen, how to categorize it, how to respond to it. All of that happens below the surface, as it were – outside of our direct perception. What we think of as the “self” is basically how all those undercurrents look and feel once they’ve reached the surface in the form of thought and activity. That is, it feels like we are separate actors but in fact we are simply another part of the show itself – another ripple in the stream.

(If you doubt that, drop a few tabs of acid (or fast or meditate or have a sustained orgasm) and watch what happens. When we switch up our brain chemistry, sensation changes, processing changes, and the sense of self changes accordingly).

Yet all of these perceptions, sensations and appearances occur within consciousness. That is, absent consciousness, how could they possibly be? In this sense, they do in fact seem to emerge from consciousness. I more or less implied this a couple of paragraphs back. Yet if we look closely at what is happening, is it truly arising from anything? Yes it may seem to be arising – and taking this arising as a literal truth may feel both logical and intuitive – but is it in fact? Can you really say for sure? Would you stake your life on it? Would you stake your child’s life?

Given that so much naturally falls outside the realm of our perceptual and cognitive capabilities (see the aforementioned optical illusion), what is our actual confidence level that our present sense of the self and the world is true? As opposed to just how it seems or feels or appears?

What about your present experience of consciousness suggests that it is not arising simultaneously with its contents? Can you say definitely that a tree or a cat or a book only exists because you are conscious of it?

Is there anything in your present experience of consciousness which suggests it does not arise from a brain? Or that it can’t possibly arise from a brain?

And with respect to all these questions, what is your confidence level? I would stake my life – or any life – on an argument that Boston Red Sox won the 2004 World Series. I would be less confident if the argument was whether Marxism is effectively moral to the degree it actually redistributes wealth downward.

And if the question is: what are the origins of consciousness . . . well, I’d stick around for the dialogue but I wouldn’t be putting my or anyone else’s life on the line.

The suggestion here – or invitation perhaps – is to avoid drawing conclusions, especially when we are relying on religious or spiritual language. “Consciousness is the Source” – “I am that I am” – “Nothing real can be threatened.” Rather than indulge the imagery, language and concepts associated with religion and spiritual practices, just give attention. Just observe. Just experience the observer observing.

Without exception, our religious and spiritual ideas are responsive to our experience, and our subjective experience is fundamentally the same as every other human observer. So look at it. What is happening? What does it feel like? What does it not feel like? What does it imply about truth? About peace and love and justice? What – if anything – does it allow you to say with utter certainty? What conclusions should you draw? What conclusions should you avoid?

And always: how do you know and what is your confidence level in the answers?

Truly, when we give attention in this way, we encounter primarily our stories – the narratives which purport to explain our experience. These stories provide some grounding for our experience – we are awareness, or Jesus is watching over us, or we need to submit to rigorous meditation practices, or do yoga, or get a therapist, or read more A Course in Miracles or fewer neo-advaitic writers.

What if the stories are perfectly predictable outcomes of atoms being stacked a certain way – that is, when atoms are organized in such a way as to be a self-reflexive languaging primate, stories about saviors and infinity and eternity and the All feel necessary and logical?

Would that be okay? Why or why not?

The point here is not to equate all these “stories.” The point is not prove some right while disproving others. Truly, if we get beyond the need to be right about all this stuff, what happens? The suggestion I offer is that we become happy and peaceful in authentic and natural ways, that our happiness is infectious and helpful, and that the world, such as it is and is not, becomes a better place.

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