The nature of attention has always been a vexatious issue with me. From the days of being a student, the purpose of attention has always been to gain something. My parents would be full of injunctions that I persist with the task given and learn from it—attend to it. Attention was for a purpose, I was told. To illustrate this, the story of Arjuna and the eye of the bird from The Mahabharata would be told:
One day, Dronacharya lined up the Kauravas and the Pandavas to demonstrate the power of attention.
The guru explained the purpose of the lesson: Each of them had to put an arrow through the eye of the bird set up on a tree in the garden. As each of them lined up with their bow, he asked them the same question, “What do you see?” Each time the student would describe all that he saw.
He obviously kept Arjuna as the last one and asked him what he saw. Arjuna replied that he could see the eye of the bird. The guru persisted, “Do you not see the trees, the flowers, your brothers, your cousins, the butterflies the blue sky, the ripe mangoes…?” Arjuna, that model student, replied in his steadfast manner, “I see the eye of the bird and nothing else.” He alone was allowed to release his arrow and, sure enough, he got the target.
Thus, my parents would conclude should be my state of mind too. And they would leave after they had given me this little homily. And I would feel vindictive about the mythological hero and wish he had not been such a model student.
While my juvenile reactions to this soon ended, and I was able to see the reason behind what I now understand as focussed attention, I still had some questions. I learnt about focussed attention, which is a skill that is needed when one wants to learn or understand something. Certainly, the greater the focus, the clearer, deeper and better the understanding. So, in the story, the prince’s focus in that situation was necessary, as the intention of the lesson was to show how focus brings accuracy. This is the classroom attention that, as a teacher, one would want from students. Any disruption is upsetting, mainly, one thinks, for the keeper of the intention, unless one shares that intention with the students and welcomes them into it as well.
A recent article I had read about building the ‘attention muscle’ in the classroom context, railed about diminishing attention levels, and the catering to this by all concerned—textbooks, the new media as well as the teacher. The digital age, it complained, had oversimplified things and now the attempt in all pedagogical situations is to break things down to chewable sizes—through short worksheets with breaks, bite-size information capsules, and even short videos. It made a compelling argument in which it decried today’s classroom practices that accepted this as a fait accompli. There was no longer a demand for sustained attention from students. The question the article raised was: Should schools and teachers downsize their lessons, their classes and their plans, or should they build a quality of sustained attention?
Clearly, schools do have a mandate to build into their programme the building of attention. My disagreement with this is, however, against building this skill for a purpose, to an end. I have wondered whether attention is not a quality that I would have my students learn or imbibe, rather than see it as a skill required to meet an end?
Krishnamurti has spoken of attention as a kind of mindfulness or awareness, very different from the concentrated attention that is often held up as the ideal in educational paradigms. He narrates an incident in which he was sitting along with the driver in a car while he and his companions were talking about ‘awareness’. The driver in his haste knocked down a goat crossing the road and all the while his companions, avid in their discussion of ‘awareness’, were completely oblivious to what had happened. The irony of this cannot be sufficiently underscored.
If one were to go back to the etymological roots of this word, it might give us a glimpse of what attention is actually capable of. It comes from the root French word, atendre and from the Latin, attendre which literally means ‘to stretch towards’, (ad [to] + tendre [stretch]). The notion is of ‘stretching’ one’s mind toward something. There is also a sense of ‘take care of, wait upon’ that emerges in the fourteenth century.
If I were to translate that, attention would mean ‘to care’. In the words of the French philosopher, Simone Weil, in First and Last Notebooks, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Indeed, that is what I would aspire to in my life, and wish for my students as well.
This gives me the key that I have been looking for, the key that schools have misplaced. Attention is not about mere focus, though it is about that as well. Attention has to do with observation without the self, without a motive, without conflict, without effort.
When I have read about a character who forgot many things, but never forgot a kind face, I have thought about how attentive that particular character was. It is in the attention to the silences in between, as Krishnamurti would say, that there is space and that space is attention. I see how inattention can be equated with thoughtlessness and selfcentredness. And is that not something to look at very carefully?
In a Harvard study on focussed attention, two professors created an experiment called the Invisible Gorilla Effect (which can be viewed at www.theinvisiblegorilla.com). A video directs viewers’ attention to a specific thing, such as a game of basketball being played on a court, and they are asked to focus on a particular task. In the middle of the video, a person in a gorilla costume walks across the court. But the viewers, absorbed in their task, often completely missed seeing the gorilla. This showed that as we focus on what we know, we miss out on all else that we ought to see.
If it is such attention and not self-directed ‘will’ that can cure us of our faults, then is it not this quality of attention that we must attend to? Going back to Simone Weil again, in Grace and Gravity, “Attention taken to its highest degree is the same thing as prayer. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer”.
If we could give ourselves and our students this gift through both demand and practice, through conversation and reflection, I think we would have done our task rather well. What I wish for, truly, is this grace.