One day a man of the people said to Zen Master Ikkyu: "Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?" Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word "Attention." "Is that all?" asked the man. "Will you not add something more?" Ikkyu then wrote twice running: "Attention. Attention." "Well," remarked the man rather irritably, "I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written." Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: "Attention. Attention. Attention." Half angered, the man demanded: "What does that word 'Attention' mean anyway?" And Ikkyu answered gently: "Attention means attention."
—Philip Kapleau Roshi, The Three Pillars of Zen
What can you do with attention? Apparently you can pay it, lend it (because you want it back), make it (because you create it), focus it (because it is spread out), devote it (because it is sacred), gift it (because it shows your appreciation), give it (because it is with you), and so on. Such are the rich and varied ways in which different languages "handle," "treat," and "distribute" attention.
Attention is a form of analysis—a complex process which reduces the object to elements already known. In order to meet a goal or to complete any task, we must be capable of focussing—a unity of consciousness that is maintained for a duration of time. Focussing is what "holds" our attention. Since we experience our world through our five senses, an ability to selectively pick and choose the parts of it that are most relevant to ourselves can radically transform our lives. Our world radiates out from a hypothetical centre and extends as far as the limits of our senses. At a certain distance, our world fades away into noise, but within the bounds of our senses, we can shift our focus from one source of stimulus to another. What was once background becomes foreground, and vice-versa. Moreover, we seem to only use one or two of our senses at a time, and, as magical numbers go, we take in only 7 ± 2 distinct artefacts from an experience. This does not mean that the input from the remaining senses are nullified, on the contrary, studies have shown that we register a remarkable amount of seemingly redundant information from our senses which is not stored in our working memory, but subsists in a nebulous form in some dusty back office of the mind. In fact, you can imagine the mechanism of mental life as a continual coming and going of impressions from without and the sensations, feelings, ideas, and images they evoke, which in turn associate or repel each other according to certain laws. Indeed then, as the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing observed, "what we fail to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds." Unless we take the time to take apart our actions through meditative reflection and mindfulness, we will forever be slaves to our emotional states as they arise and cause us to act in so-called "irrational ways".
The mind is indeed a tangle of thoughts and sensations, feelings and emotions. The French psychologist Théodule-Armand Ribot (1839 - 1916) differentiated attention into two types—spontaneous and voluntary. Spontaneous attention is its common form and a natural convergence of our consciousness towards a single object within our world. The mind is the more balanced when it maintains a close correspondence between our mental representations and the external world, past and present. Sigmund Freud noted that those who observe well have perceptions that correspond to reality.
Simply in not directing one's notice to anything in particular, and in maintaining the same 'evenly-suspended attention' ... In the face of all that one hears. In this way we avoid a danger. For as soon as anyone deliberately concentrates his attention to a certain degree, he begins to select from the material before him; one point will be fixed in his mind with particular clearness and some other will be correspondingly disregarded, and in making this selection he will be following his expectations or inclinations. This however is precisely what must not be done.
Your brain does not care if your internal representations do not bear more than a fleeting resemblance to reality. In a number of studies conducted in the 1920s and 30s, Sir Fredrick Bartlett demonstrated that memory works in creative and constructive ways, distorting, omitting, and even deleting our perceptual experiences. In fact, we seem to be able to selectively access one and perhaps no more than two of our sensory channels of sight, sound, taste, touch, and smell in any given perceptual experience. So all perception is only a hypothesis, which is based on a very limited number of these elementary sensations, which are further "edited" and completed by competing and interfering information in memories past. Furthermore, the quality of the memory that is tucked away in the recesses of the brain is subject to many factors such as the environment of the original experience, the location and shape of the memory in the brain, and the present stimulus that invokes the memory. Memories themselves are complex and are linked to understanding—that is the way we formulate experience as a "comprehensible reality". It involves our entire being: our bodily attributes, capacities and characteristics; our values, moods, attitudes, cultural beliefs, faiths, fears, anticipations, instincts, and superstitions as well as our thoughts and feelings about the experience itself. The memory, once encoded, is dispersed in various parts of the brain. But the human brain has trouble separating fantasy from fact, seeing things that are not there and not seeing things that are there. This neural ambiguity is the cornerstone of our imaginative capacity and enables us to "see" and "create" novel things in our world—some astonishingly utopian in utility or proportion and others banal and useless. The creative faculty then assumes an entirely analytical and practical modus operandi in materialising the imagination. Since the logic and reasoning are the processes of the frontal lobe, when we conceive of an action, however trivial, this part of the brain not only forms an objective opinion of the probability of the desired outcome, but also of the sequence of events, involved in the action, taking place. It calculates this probability by weighing all the factors for and against the factors that would produce it and those that would prevent it. Thus a factor that is supported by a desire to take place is evoked in the mind simultaneously with a reciprocal but opposite factor that is supported by the fear that it will fail. The dominant factor acts as an antagonistic reducer to its opposing counterpart.
The conflict between extreme optimists and pessimists as to the imminent or remote consequences of the same social events which are unfolded before their eyes, is due to their respective excessive affectivities, each taking into consideration only a part of the relevant factors.
—Eugenio Rignano, The Psychology of Reasoning (1920)
When you decide upon the worthy goal of true happiness and freedom, you need to put aside your past experience of pains, illnesses, ageing, bereavement and all that old karma. When you focus your mind on your goals with intensity and keep that going for a commensurate amount of time, your attention is at its peak state. Being intent on pursuing your aim your concentration is reflected in your sensitivity to the subtle fluctuations in your breath: when it is shallow and when it is deep; when it is torpid and when it is manic. The duration aspect is important so that you're not doing bits and pieces between temptation and distraction, but focussing your mind on one thing for long stretches of time. And when you're really making progress, when you can see yourself approaching your goal, it's easy to lose your footing and be carried away by your accomplishments. You need to maintain that equanimity so that you're not put off balance by your successes or failures, but are immediately scrutinising your outcomes from the other side. Just like all efforts of the mind, the concentration itself is a fabrication, so remember that you are making it happen, you're in control of your state of mind. You make careful adjustments to your breath so that the experience is pleasurable, comfortable, and enjoyable for the mind. When the mind is in a good place, it is not going to wander off. Finally, you know that you will inevitably encounter thoughts that will try to pull you off course; to drag the mind in unproductive directions. Once again, remind yourself that these thoughts are fabrications of perception and that they are not strictly your thoughts, but rather the product of certain natural processes of the mind. You can let them arise and subside of their own volition without interfering, but simply watching the process taking place.