The Reformation of Attention

Aldous Huxley Portrait

Aldous Huxley Portrait

I think of attention on the whole as how the sensory landscape of this present moment appears to — or though — my ‘self’. Attention is the presentation of consciousness to itself. The prism through which the world is both constructed and encountered. 

After a recent inquiry into why I meditate, I concluded that meditation acts upon attention, and attention is my, if not the, primary art form. Meditation — or contemplative practice at large — expands the registry of attention beyond the singular pale of language, extending perception into the dark, unsayable spaces of consciousness. 

What imbues contemplative practice with potency is the plasticity, or capacity for change, of attention. Attention is not a fixed microscope lens, nor a spotlight whose breadth and depth of illumination are unchanging, as the popular ‘spotlight of attention’ metaphor goes. To broaden attention is to encounter broader presentations of consciousness. To deepen attention is to perceive farther down into the unlit depths of consciousness in a present moment. 

What might we see, through trained attention, in that deep? Insights abound, to be sure. To pick one out: there may exist a persistent mismatch between sensations and the stories we make of them. 

The Mythology of Language

The stream of consciousness is not, inherently, a flowing of words. Sensations, stimuli, memory, and anticipations all coalesce in muddy rushes, flashes, of…what? William James says a “blooming, buzzing confusion.” But this confusion emanates from a place, or rather, sensations, beneath words. By the time the stream’s inherent stuff is processed and packaged into words, it’s been transmogrified through the left-brain, rational, analytic filter

The notion of language acting as a reductive filter upon consciousness is not new. Aldous Huxley, following an expedition into altered states of consciousness via mescaline, famously likened the brain to a ‘reducing valve’. His take remains elegant; quoted at length: 

“To make biological survival possible, Mind at Large has to be funneled through the reducing valve of the brain and nervous system. What comes out at the other end is a measly trickle of the kind of consciousness which will help us to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet. To formulate and express the contents of this reduced awareness, man has invented and endlessly elaborated those symbol-systems and implicit philosophies which we call languages. Every individual is at once the beneficiary and the victim of the linguistic tradition into which he has been born — the beneficiary inasmuch as language gives access to the accumulated records of other people’s experience, the victim in so far as it confirms him in the belief that reduced awareness is the only awareness and as it bedevils his sense of reality, so that he is all too apt to take his concepts for data, his words for actual things. That which, in the language of religion, is called ‘this world’ is the universe of reduced awareness, expressed, and, as it were, petrified by language.”

But recent advents in neuroscience suggest Huxley over-generalized. It’s not the entire brain, but specifically the left hemisphere, responsible for linguistically petrifying reduced expressions of consciousness. In Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari (who dedicated his wildly popular first book, Sapiens, to his illustrious meditation teacher, S.N. Goenka) affirms

“… the left hemisphere of the brain is the seat not only of our verbal abilities, but also of an internal interpreter that constantly tries to make sense of our life, using partial clues in order to concoct plausible stories…It doesn’t matter that the plot is full of lies and lacunas…”

The left hemisphere embeds raw experience in concocted stories, like shipping containers sent to our attention — our apprehension, or perception, of the present moment. We, by default, do not apprehend sensations until they’re already encoded and interpreted through the internal medium of language. 

By this point, it’s too late. Following Marshall McLuhan’s lead — the medium is the message — the medium of language smuggles its mythology into our perception of the world. Language itself harbors an implicit philosophy. We become unconscious minions of language’s smuggled assumptions. What are they? What is the mythology of language? As Huxley suggests, “to stay alive on the surface of this particular planet”. Language is a handmaiden of evolution — a tool of the evolutionary ego that remains infatuated with quantity, not quality (never mind depth) of life. 

Nonverbal Perception

A function of contemplative practice, then, is to cultivate nonverbal perception. To decouple attention from language in varying degrees, and broaden perception to sensations beyond, or before, the medium of language. That internal stream of narration is dethroned from its seat as sole arbiter of experience. The totalitarian regime of what behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman calls our ‘narrating self’ is thwarted. We breathe diversity into the experience of what it’s like to be our ‘selves’ — those prisms through which experience refracts — what it’s like to live. Feeding this diversity of conscious experience is reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s insight, arrived at following a whirlwind tour through psychedelia

“If everyday waking consciousness is but one of several possible ways to construct a world, then perhaps there is value in cultivating a great amount of what I’ve come to think of as neural diversity…This strikes me as one of the great gifts of the experience they [psychedelics] afford: the expansion of one’s repertoire of conscious states.”

Neural diversity develops greater autonomy in our responses to the raw sense-data of life. Meditation stabilizes that same short-burst shock effect of psychedelics, where attention beholds the ‘blooming, buzzing’ sensations of consciousness earlier on in the assembly line of perception. An avenue of more direct apprehension is briefly uncluttered and made available. Conscious experience inches nearer to that unsayable substrate of consciousness, for which language becomes one among many imperfect modes of interpretation. Painting, dancing, silence, even a mere smile are empowered as alternate modes of sense-making from the internal entropy of experience. 

Developing these alternate, imperfect (but each in their own way) modes of sense-making diversifies perception, and enlarges attention. Enlarged attention carries a greater capacity to catch itself in its own glance; this is the nub of contemplative practice, inverting attention upon itself. Our lives vivify and unfold into ever-more robust, coruscating distillations and expressions of the landscape of our perception; that contemplatively enlarged, kaleidoscopic attentional awareness in which our ‘selves’ exist. What shines through as we develop the requisite neural diversity to broaden perception beyond language, complementing linguistics with other tools of experiential self-knowledge, is that original impulse to philosophy as a way of life, articulated by French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty:

“… a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence.”

This elemental sensation of astonishment lies at the core of philosophy; relating to it lies at the core of art. The great scholar of religion Huston Smith describes a ‘realized being’ as someone living with “an acute sense of the astonishing mystery of everything.” Language rationalizes; perhaps its greatest evolutionary feat is explaining away this basic, inmost astonishment that philosophers, psychonauts, mystics, contemplatives, and people of all stripes occasionally uncover. Barring existential astonishment from our present attention is biologically useful; wonder is an evolutionarily inefficient state of consciousness. Pollan writes

“… immersing us in the flow of a present that is literally wonderful — wonder being the by-product of precisely the kind of unencumbered first sight, or virginal noticing, to which the adult brain has closed itself. (It’s so inefficient!)”

But as biological evolution cedes preeminence to cultural evolution, with not quantity, but quality of life at the helm, what was once inefficient may become vital. We can reform social institutions all we like — and there’s important work to be done here — but the reformation of attention may present more potent frontiers. 

Futures of Perception

If attention is how the sensory landscape of a present moment appears to me — the appearance of my world — then the stakes are high. Attention is, by default, capricious and partial. Disciplines in nonverbal perceptions rub our noses in some difficult questions: how gnarled by emotional traumas, entangled in insecurities, and suffocated by a survival-bent ego is my medium of attention, and thus the world presented to me? How much awe and wonder are filtered out by adapted survival mechanisms? How much of the story do my words miss? 

The Buddhists tell us due to these inborn deficiencies in attention, ignorance is the default human state. Perhaps they’re right, if ignorance is understood as a misplaced belief in the fidelity of attention. But the Buddhists also wear robes and shave their heads — I don’t see us all heading that direction. A reformation of attention in the present cultural landscape will bear new forms of practice. New institutions, like “Monasteries of the Future” envisioned by Miles G. Bukiet. New terms, like “consciousness” replacing “God”. New technology, like neurofeedback headsets to complement and invigorate meditation. 

Huxley would be pleased if things progress in this direction, in which we come to experience life as more than just the stories we tell ourselves (we’re yet to find a good plot, anyway). The channels of perception we practice give rise to the attentional landscapes that constitute our worlds. We’re left, as usual, with a balance of opposites: skillfully navigating the worlds we perceive, and cultivating the very methods of perception that create those worlds. Both must be practiced, as to neglect either is to starve the other.