Attention is the vehicle through which we come to know reality. Our attention is a live, ever-changing canvas of our being, displaying whatever captures our attention in the moment. Attention, ultimately, is the process that governs which information enters our awareness and which does not, and it is only through self-regulated, purified attention that we can achieve higher states of evolution. But the competition for our attention is fierce…
What Competes for Our Attention?
With the exception of certain trait tendencies that Nature may have hardwired into our DNA, human qualities are forged from experience — our memories and actions of the past — and from present and future events. Attention is a constant continuum, shifting back and forth between our thoughts and feelings about past memories, the present that is unfolding, or our anticipation of future events. It is dynamic and fluid, moving swiftly across time and place, constantly capturing and deploying whatever we’re thinking, witnessing or experiencing at any given moment in time. At times, the mind is displaying images from the past, which it draws from memory; at other times, it may be displaying images representing ideas about the future; and at times, it is dedicated to whatever we’re directing our attention to in the present moment.
In one sense, it’s adaptive to have a mind so nimble that it can skip effortlessly from the past to the present to the future in nanoseconds. After all, it can be critical — even life-saving — to have 360-degree attention. For example, our memory indices include warning signs of specify dangers, all categorized and sorted, which will help us identify present and future threats quickly and respond appropriately. Every lesson we learned about our past choices is archived in that vast reference library in our brains, waiting to guide us toward the right choices in the future if we only let it.
But 360-degree memory can also be our downfall. For example, if we ruminate relentlessly over the past, or worry excessively about the future, we are unable to live fully in the present. We may even become vulnerable to mental health problems.
We humans are constantly prone to having our attention dragged away from the present (a concept known as vritti in Sanskrit). Thus our temperament is defined by our past, present and future. Vritti effectively equates to temperament, our natural tendency to act and react in a certain way. Temperament manifests as sort of a default state of reaction. And when we are under the control of our temperament or vritti, we may not be not in complete control of ourselves. For instance, even if someone beats an addiction, they’ll always be vulnerable to relapse because past conditionings and memories associated with addictive behaviors were indelibly recorded in memory. Events in the present can trigger old pleasure memories associated with the substance of choice, dragging one’s attention to the same desires, cravings or urges that created the addiction in the first place. Replaying images from the past can cause us to slip back into those old patterns of addictive behavior all over again.
One goal of obtaining self-control is to make the Self stronger than unhealthy memories, to give us the ability to self-regulate our thoughts, emotions and behaviors. Specifically, our memories contribute to the formation of the Ego and Superego within us. The ego gives us a strong identity and sense of achievement. The superego represents our moral conditionings and rules of conduct.
Children, with their limited memory and limited sets of rules and ability to understand them, always live in the present moment. They do not yet have a well-developed ego or superego. But our attention is like a scanner, continuously scanning and capturing the events around us and saving these images in memory. Eventually, we reach a stage in our lives where our memories of the past or thoughts about the future can dominate our attention to the extent that it becomes a muddled mess. Life begins to seem bewildering and we feel out of control.
Ultimately, the continuous accumulation of memories, our feelings about all those memories, our perception of the present, and our anticipatory thoughts about the future are products of the ego and superego. When our thoughts and feelings satisfy our ego or superego, they’re reinforced, giving them even more power over us. For instance, we’re likely to feel happier if something satisfies our ego or our sense of morality or conditioned “rules” built into our superego. By the same token, we may only feel more anxious or depressed if we continue to reinforce negative thoughts and feelings conditioned by our ego or superego. The joy born out of reality of the moment with no attachments, dependencies or conditionings recedes and ultimately becomes non-existent; so much so, in fact, that we may forget how that real experience actually felt.
But achieving the state of thoughtless awareness can restore that joy.