In Pala, a fictional place in Aldous Huxley’s novel Island, the myna birds called out “attention, attention”, “here and now boys, here and now”. As I stand in line before lunch to rewash a badly washed plate, I ponder over the use of mynas. Would a few dozen, calling out “attention” or maybe, “is your plate clean?” help take away the burden of my saying the same thing?
I want our students to pay attention to what they are doing, but what is it that I want when I say ‘pay attention’? The words ‘concentration’ and ‘attention’ are used almost interchangeably. Focus on tasks being done. In India, the archetype of concentration is Arjuna in The Mahabharata. In an archery exercise, his brothers and cousins tell their teacher what they see as they focus on the target:
“I see you, my brothers, the tree, the leaves, the bird...”
“I see the tree, the branches, the bird...”
“I see the branch, the bird...”
“I see the eye of the bird.”
This idea, that the task is the focus and everything else is distraction, is not borne out by studies on the brain and behaviour. Biologically, we seem geared to react to new information coming in, and attention keeps shifting. When concentration is demanded in the classroom, we are essentially saying, “the task is clear, do it without deviation”. But the world persists in impinging on our minds, making concentration an ideal we cannot experience often.
A more modern formulation of attention is mindfulness—do your tasks mindfully, that is, think about them as you do them. This is not automatic, because you need to get input from the surroundings to decide what to do, but the focus is still on the task needing to be done. We pay attention to our surroundings so as to be able to deal with them. But we have to be selective, because our brains cannot deal with more than about five to nine items at a time. When information comes in faster than we can process it, our attention keeps shifting and there is a metabolic cost on the brain. Walk on an unknown path, and we notice details in the surroundings and everything is fresh and rich. Walk a known one, and our thoughts occupy our minds. There is no memory of the path taken, but I have reached my destination. Mindfulness perhaps will make sure that I am alert to the here and now, and remain connected to my surroundings, not lost in an environment of my thoughts. But it is still I who am alert to what surrounds me. I am the centre of the seeing. When my ego is in abeyance, I see the mountains as awe-inspiring and myself as insignificant. I can look at an insect and see that it is as important as me. This kind of seeing changes our sense of proportion.
What does it mean to pay attention to everything, when there is no foreground, background or focus? Sometimes, early in the morning, on just waking or when walking around, there is a brief moment (literally) when the world appears this way. How does it differ from the usual? There is no centre, so no proportion. No focus, because there is no response. A jolt and it is gone. I click into myself. I wouldn’t know what to do if it lasted longer than that, how my life would change. But these moments give a glimpse of a reality not usually seen. They act as a reminder that my view may be biased, or at the least, narrowly focussed.