Teaching Attention

Observation is the perceptual ability to collect first-hand information. It’s determined by the way a person uses their mind and attention to direct their investigating. Similar to the way that the selection of a question directs the mind toward where to gain results, attention has qualities of perception that direct the way it can may be used.

The most simple way to use your observation is to just do it. But often people find they don’t notice anything; nothing “stands out.” This is why it pays to be able to shift your attention on purpose to generate new, creative ways of observing.

Sometimes, it’s not what the content are of what is being observed that needs consideration. How attention itself gets directed is important to learn about. Most people in our Western culture have honed their attention to be used as a selective searchlight, but that is only one possible means. There are probably as many ways of using attention as there are cultures. Attention can assume the investment of cultural or personal interest, as if it is being directed through a magnified or many faceted lens. Attention can skip and select using varied criteria. Its priority may also be reordered to fit the situation on the fly. Attention can inhabit different points of view through psychological projection or imagination. Attention can allow itself to be deliberately suspended; attention can coerce and leave no choice because of the rate of pace toward a goal. Attention can be diffused; attention can be used in a broad, general connective sense as if merging into a figure-ground relationship. Necessity directs attention for safety’s sake or in service of a specific goal that directs a course of action. In service of the needs of others and communication is another motive that warrants honing specialized skills of paying attention.

Whatever it is you do, most people have a routine of various selected ways of using their attention; these routines often use a only a few ‘favored’ qualities. This short list suffices, so new means are not often intentionally created. In fact, when asked about how many ways are there to pay attention…most people can’t think of more than a few.

Consider the quality of attention mentioned of a figure-ground relationship. This particular kind of attention would be appropriately used by an artist of any medium who is noting and bringing forth certain desired qualities without translating their meaning into words. This artistic mode of perception has quite different qualities than the kind of attention used by someone who must imperatively decide if a priority action is about to be immediately required for self-preservation motives quickly. However, if you were hunting or hiding for self-preservation, then skill at this same sort of attention would allow scanning the view to spot the location of what is being obscured by scenery. Having many qualities of attention is handy to know.

It is possible to train attention. Of course, in the doing of different skills & activities, some qualities of attention are developed and exercised in context, and this can be their largest value. There are also many philosophical essays on attention, but ideas profit from having a form for practice. Meditation practices feature attention training specifically, but these practices often contain a culturally defined prescription of how the ability should affect other values.

Purposeful Freedom Of Allowing and Leaving Out

Beyond selling the value of constructive effortlessness and patience, Alexander Technique trains attention without a prescription of what goals & content should be pursued. Although Alexander Technique uses specific examples in context to conduct a lesson and has the obvious purpose of freeing posture and gaining poise as a by-product, it is designed to be abstracted into all general contexts involving movement response. The ability to observe and choose appropriate qualities of attention tailored to certain purposes should be free from any specific context of how it was learned. This requires the ability to abstract.

Another Reason Why Alexander’s Work Is Notable
Alexander Technique is fascinating partly because it requires training attention, as well as an ability to describe what goes on inside that is not often brought to light. There are not many words for the proprioceptive sense of balance, location and relative effort in English, so the search for meaning and description can be poetic fun. Alexander Technique is a handy form for learning because it creates a circumstance where thinking has a specific physical expression that can be factually witnessed in how a person moves. Having a real example that can be used as a hypothesis shows off or proves how much the person was able to do as they intended. It’s also a medium for shining the intuitive sense buried underneath what is usually hidden by habit. Shaping expressions of intent is, in a sense, a performance art and a chance to tap the unknown for whatever you guessed might exist…so you can pay attention to what’s new!

For example, most people are not used to perceiving their proprioceptive sense. Many have never before heard of the word “proprioception”. This is defined as our sense of location in space, judgment of weight and the amount of effort it takes to perform an action. (This sense is even skipped over in the list of the 5 senses.)

If I ask someone to notice while they are taking a few steps what they are doing concerning the way they are moving, (even including causes, conclusion or judging in what they notice,) most people draw a complete blank. It helps to provide them with a list of words so they can come up with a ways to ask. They want to ask for the goal of obtaining any description, so they can compare results after experimentation.

In training the ability to observe oneself, it seems that adverbs are useful to jog and note how ones’ own perception works. It is best if that action is done playfully, because once the survival sense is active, it seems to cut off rather than open perception because attention is being used in service of an immediate imperative to act. In particular, four specific questions are help the ability to observe and describe for oneself. They are: quality, direction, sequence, timing, (in no particular order.)

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