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Cues: Which to pay attention to

Posted Aug 24 2008 7:25pm
When I first arrived in San Francisco from a much smaller town, the stimuli of just driving around the city was near overwhelming. Cars, bikes, scooters, pedestrians, pedestrians with dogs, dog walkers with packs of dogs, stop lights, honking horns, roads built for carriages, blinking signs, beautiful buildings, stunning views--my mind was hyperventilating with what to pay attention too.

Life, we can agree, offers us a tremendous amount of data. If we were to pay attention to all of it, equally, we'd be lost in a ocean of signals and stimulation. The brain automatically filters this data, whether it comes from within or without, according to our patterning, some hard wired (like the frequencies of light that the cells of the eye register) and some come from our particular history. For instance, there's that phenomena where, when you buy a new car, you suddenly see that same model all over.

Internally, the same automatic decisions are being made, in terms of what the mind gives preference and space to when scanning all the internal data. The whole body, the whole conglomerate of trillions and trillions of cells, is constantly communicating with itself, between cells, between brain cells, between organs, between the mind and the body. Electrical, chemical, mechanical, hydraulic--huge amounts of signaling goes on. So what does the mind pay attention to?

You can see how there is a tremendous amount of filtering that goes on out of our conscious awareness, as there has to be. Thankfully, we don't have to choose moment by moment whether to think about signaling the white blood cells to take on that cold, or choose how to regulate our internal temperature.

Yet there are very important, especially to sufferers of the wild moods, choices to be made in terms of where to place our attention, choices that determine in large part what mood gets brought to fore, or sent to the back of our minds.

For instance, when you are exercising, what is the relevant information to pay attention to? And how do you know? When you hear the thought, "Stop, this is too painful!" where is it actually coming from? When you feel the tension in your calves, running on the treadmill, is that a sign of impending cramp, or a good healthy work out?

Or, when you are feeling anxiety, and your heart speeds up, is that an imminent heart attack? Are you nearing your death? Is it a signal that your body is revving up to deal with a potential danger? What does it mean?

Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political writer, has said that people are essentially rational, but that they are fed poor data. While one could argue with the basic premise, what seems true is that with "bad data" we do get "bad results." In Buddhist terms, we are misperceiving , misinterpreting reality, producing ignorance, and therefore suffering. Chomsky has focused on the bad information coming from mass media and how that affects public discourse and opinion, which is a legitimate area to critique. But for the wild moods, the more salient place to look is how we are telling ourselves bad narratives, selecting ourselves the distorted information, and then believing the resulting story.

Which begs the question, how do we make more accurate stories of our outer and inner data? I think the answer really boils down to: breathe, and be curious. With the panic attack example, it's being mindful of the experience, the data--racing heart, temple throbbing, fear--in a curious, interested way. " Hmm , what is this?" is the essential attitude. Inquisitiveness and curiosity. With this mindset, the "real," or more accurate, less filtered version of reality comes to the fore , because we are not, as it were, forcing the light through any number of prisms.

If I'm running on the treadmill and the thought comes that I have to stop, I can question it: "Is that true?" And then see what comes with that openness. Which requires a certain stability, in terms of focus and emotions, but that all can be developed with work and attention.

Which is not to say any of this is easy, because there are reasons why we've learned to filter for certain information (usually "negative data"). Yet we can learn to be more objective in interpreting our own data, our own signals, from heart, mind, body, and spirit. We learn to allow in the data and sitting with it to allow the order and meaning already there to emerge, without forcing a judgment out of fear.
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