Monday, March 26, 2007

Attention, please

Morning Flower Arrangement, Anantara Resort, Chiang Saen, Thailand, November 2005, Pentax Optio 555, Exposure 1/80 sec @ f2.8, ISO 64, with flash © Steven Crisp [Click on the photo to enlarge]

Can I have your attention please? Do you see our gardener in the picture, at the Anantara Resort in Thailand? He is very focused on his task -- creating a beautiful floating flower arrangement. Not a cell phone in one hand, palm pilot in the other, nor iPod buds in his ears.

I was just reading this NY Times article about multitasking. It did, of course, point out the dangers of distraction of multitasking while driving, or even just crossing the road. And then it went on to try and quantify from a business perspective the impact of letting yourself be interrupted by e-mail. (Yawn. Why must it always be about business.)

But I found this quote rather fascinating:
The human brain, with its hundred billion neurons and hundreds of trillions of synaptic connections, is a cognitive powerhouse in many ways. “But a core limitation is an inability to concentrate on two things at once,” said RenĂ© Marois, a neuroscientist and director of the Human Information Processing Laboratory at Vanderbilt University.

Think about that for a minute. We have all heard and perhaps taken for granted that we underutilize our brains. That they are capable of much more than we ask of them. But perhaps, that is much more focused awareness on a single moment. And the next.

Now clearly our brain-body has multiple processing sections. It keeps our heart beating, our lungs breathing, and the rest of our autonomic nervous system running beautifuly in the background while our conscious mind is left free to ponder the next big thing.

But isn't that your experience? That at any moment, your conscious mind is only (can only be) focused on one thing at a time. That's the central processor that is controlling your perception of the Now moment.

And one more thing. If you want to really blow your mind, you can actually stop your thoughts entirely. No, not by sleeping ;-) But by being very accutely and actively aware. Try this experiement.

In a calm, quiet location, after sitting quietly for a while (meditate if you know how), place all of your awareness toward "Speak, I am listening". Don't think about that thought, but rather, actively set your mind to be "listening". Not your ears, but your mind. This conscious awareness of "Speak, I am listening" forestalls your own thoughts as you rest in awareness.

In the beginning, you will be lucky to get a few moments of thought-free time. Your mind will take over and begin its cogitation. But over time, you can extend this period, and then learn to just release each of your thoughts as they arise, and return to the awareness "speak, I am listening".

And so what? Only this: you will actually see your own thoughts arise. And when you do, you will realize that the thinker and the Seer are not the same. It is a peek into a wonderous reality, but we will save that discussion for another time. (You can read more about some aspects of a related experience in a previous blog entry.)

In the meantime, just realize that your conscious mind focuses on one moment at a time. And this is entirely consistent with Life, which is lived only Now. And Now. And Now.


Avantika said...

I really liked the photo and the entry-the look on the man's face showing that he 'cared' about what he was doing at that moment.
I guess when we lack 'mindfulness' we just think of every task as an activity to be done with,but the man in the photo looks as if its a task he is enjoying, in his own quiet way.
It's the same with people too.Sometimes I've noticed that the best gift we could give them is just the gift of being fully present.Sometimes,like someone I read about said,we need to get off every social networking website to actually sit down and eat a meal with a couple of people!

Steven Crisp said...

Avantika -- thank you for your insightful comment. You read more into this post that my words deserved, and you picked up on some very important points.

Like our lives being lived as the whuz and the blur of getting from point A to point Z, when of course, points B-Y are equally a part of our life experience. And just perhaps, that is where the happiness and love and compassion will be found.

And how hard many of us struggle with the idea of just "being fully present" with another human being. Oh, that is such an important point.

Like many of Life's truths, it is obvious once it is noticed, but it never screams for your attention. It never says "do it this way".

And yet, there it is. Found in the expression of gratitude from another in need, or from the deep sense of peace one feels during the experience, no matter if it is a moment of joy or sorrow.

And finally, your recognition of our hi-tech (non-)solution to the basics of our humanity. Why don't we just spend some time with another human being. Share a meal. Be present. And glimpse their soul. What exactly does that look like on a computer monitor? ;-)

Thanks for your visit, and the deeper recognition of these important points.

Anonymous said...

Hello everyone,

I just can't see any pleasure or delightfulness expression in the photo, though there may seem indication of interest.Infact he seem to be in a dreamy mood.
I was pondering how the photo will be like if it is replace with a kid doing the same action.Kids are known to have ease in maintaining a presence.The point is , is it really a struggle to maintain a presence??? Is it stressful to keep the mind together with the task that the body is doing and why this absent mindedness only happened most often to adults and not kids??? When a person maintain mindfulness or presence there is a deeper FEELING. When a task is done with the mind somewhere else there is no feeling. When the body is at rest or sleeping, the mental faculty is functioning but there is also no feeling. In the case of partial anaesthetic being applied, the mind is completely awake, but there is no feeling in some part of the body. In other words it is natural that the mind and body function separately and they are USE together in only on purpose to create a more meaningful actions when require. when the mind is functioning separately, it creates fantasy for new ideas or inventions. In this sense,it is stressful to have feelings all the time. No wonder we tend to term it a STRUGGLE in order to maitain a maintain the body and mind together. Now the most powerful or straineous feeling is love. In the most intense intimacy and after the release of orgastic energy...that is the mind and body are being released to be separated for each to relax..we get to feel the utmost bliss??? Isn't this a natural process. The STRUGGLE can then be termed as a purposeful feeling or enjoyment.
Thank you very much the wonderful photo.

Steven Crisp said...


It is interesting your use of the word "struggle" here to maintain presence. I was just thinking of the animals. We sometimes romanticize that they don't have a "thinking" mind, and therefore, they are by nature always fully present. And so, we blame our preoccupation with thinking.

But have you watched wild animals eat? We have many that visit our back yard. They are never "calm and relaxed" and in fact, are always "on guard and fearful" when they dine. No thinking mind there -- just years of evolution. Be too trusting, and you are dinner for some bigger game.

So of course we have that innate fear buried somewhere deep in our genes as well. Even though we are on the top of that food pyramid, we fear each other. We fear the future. Of course, ultimately, we've come to fear death.

So the "struggle" if you will, is to counteract what might be these prevailing instincts. Mindfulness comes with full attention to the moment. Not fear. Not worry. Not anticipation. An openness to the moment and the experience.

I think that is why, as you note, children seem to find this naturally. They have such a great imagination -- unconstrained by the world's "realities" -- so they can fully throw themselves into the moment.

Also like the lovers you describe. That too can be a place of intense presence and full attention (or not, if we let our minds wander).

But I don't see the "struggle" as the source of joy or bliss. Perhaps acceptance of this struggle -- so one does not consciously further fight with it.

But rather, full attention to the moment, to the task at hand. Then, without "problems" or "worries" or "regrets", I believe you will find that bliss.

Thanks much for the visit and comment. It provides much to think about.

Anonymous said...

Good point that you brought up about animal instinct. Animals do have a difference when they are old or young.Young animals do not have fear or survival instinct just like kids. We have heard about kitten and mice that can stay together when young and cubs of tiger that could be surrogated by cats.Young animals are never "on guard or fearful" not until they grow older and since animals do not think, then the instinct is accumulated or conditioned in the growing up process.In other words the body does have a sort of 'Memories'.Similarly for humans, if we control or suppress our emotions certain part of our muscles stiffen or freezes and this serve as an automatic reactions when evoked later.There are memories in both the body system as well as the mind. Human can be conditioned both mentally and physically.As such, to give full attention to the present task, the being had to penetrate through both the mental conditioning as well as the body's conditioning. Kids can naturally be in the presence because both physically and mentally they are still fresh and not conditioned yet.Just today there was a sad news that "in the USA a gunman had fired in a university and killed more than 30 people". Is this a voluntary or involuntary actions, an animal instinct or a human conditioning? A failure of the body's memory or a failure of the mental memory??? Definitely this sort of actions is not what a soul would have chosen to manifest through the body and mind...a mindful action.To some, to be mindful it is really a struggle.Thanks Steven.

Steven Crisp said...


Regarding a couple of your points, about the gunman at the university, and about conditioning. I'd like to steer this conversation slightly.

I was helping an elderly neighbor yesterday, and she had her TV set on watching the news. She asked me if I had heard about this shooting, and wasn't it terrible. She is somewhat paranoid and fearful of the world anyways. So acts like this really reinforce her perspective. Cannot trust anyone. Must always be on guard, etc.

We are all part of this world -- six billion people interacting with each other and the forces of nature. Our media have chosen to operate by the motto "if it bleeds, it leads". And so, you can be assured of instantly knowing (along with video footage) about any carnage or catastrophe anywhere in the world, possibly while it is still happening. And coverage will be proportional to the amount of casuality or its bizarre nature.

Now some might consider this a "recognition of the world as it truly is". Not me. I consider it the focusing of negative energy with none of the inherent goodness to balance it. Like taking a magnifying glass on a sunny day and focusing it on some leaves -- poof, you can easily create a fire.

And of course, this creates a reinforcement of my elderly neighbor's paranoia and fear. And she is likely to end her life not trusting those around her.

I wonder what would happen if the media outlets that she watched reported instead with the motto "if it feeds, it leads". Or "if it is nice, play it twice". Or "only the best, forget the rest". After all, natural disasters are inherently local, but acts of kindness and compassion apply worldwide. Any of us could learn and apply those lessons.

But of course, many have conducted such a mental exercise, and have concluded that such a TV station would surely go out of business, because "it is not what the people want." So then, it does come back to you and me. And what small, infintesimal decisions each of us makes.

Understanding mindfulness, then, is one contribution to this world that I believe helps not only oneself, but others as well. Thanks for the continuing dialog.

Steven Crisp said...

One last thought. Consider this quote from the NYTimes as part of today's predictably over-reported news event:

It was the worst shooting ever, but it was also yet another tragedy in which television turned first to amateur reporters on the scene. “Stay out of harm’s way,” the CNN anchor Don Lemon said, addressing students at Virginia Tech. “But send us your pictures and video.”

Yes, I believe mindfulness is more important then ever.

Anonymous said...

Beautifully described and thanks for your comments on the Media. Now myself is on the other side of the globe from USA and am frankly conditioned by the american media to believe that americans are all so very oppressive and discriminative. I 'see and hear' abusement and kidnapping of kids and shooting at universities. At the tenacity that the media is propagating the negatives, I won't be surprised that the rate of such occurence will be more often. The next one may be much less than eight years??? Can't americans do something about the media??? I fully agree with you that the media is one of the most significant party in conditioning the mind, other than the parents and the closest contacts.Mindfulness with a mind that is contaminated or conditioned with negatives is of no values or no quite often mentioned by those that were involved..." I am just out of my mind and I don't know what I am just happened...after the event, it is a jolt, then only I realized." Usually the sensible mind came back only after the event.I just hope the americans can do something and mind you this time around the whole world is watching.It will affect everyone around the globe.Similarly keep it up Steven, your blog affects everyone around the globe as well.

Steven Crisp said...


It is important to hear your prespective from "the other side of the globe". Our world and our technology now make you instantly available, a reflection of our truly interconnected nature. A case of modernity reinforcing the truth about our oneness.

I still lament about the state of our media. I was in another airport yesterday, and heard nothing -- absolutely nothing-- except talking heads gorging at the tragedy trough. Absolutley pitiful. Not a valuable electron to be found in the air, I'm afraid.

So what can be done, you ask? For those of us fortunate enough to live in countries and conditions which enable a ready supply of electricity and a television set ... just say no.

Surely you have something better to do with your time than wallow in the personal sorrow of some families touched by tragedy, and now further insulted by reporters stalking them for comment.

"I just hope the americans can do something and mind you this time around the whole world is watching. It will affect everyone around the globe." Do something about what? About the media? About guns and violence? About the abusive individuals you hear about on American news?

Anon, do not become trapped. This is NOT America, nor the world. This is a caricature drawn for a single purpose: to titilate, to stimulate, to profit. There is no accuracy to the picture. You know that in your heart. Your experiences tell you that as well. But the infernal drumbeat looking to steal your attention will continue. Just turn it off. That is your choice.

Anon, we have virtually created a new post I think from all of our commentary. I will draw something up and post anew. I think you will recognize it when you see it.

And as for your comment regarding my blog's effect -- it is too flattering. This blog simply helps me in my mindfulness. It helps me to appreciate what is real. I see beauty and safety and kindness and compassion all around me.

And thee is nothing special about me or where I live -- you see it too I am sure. So tell me what you see. Tell me what your experiences are.

Let a thousand individual voices create the harmony that reduces the media drumbeat to mere background noise. Which your mind is designed to naturally filter out. Until it might as well no longer exist.