Attention to Attention

To flourish and grow in the many-sided uncertain, and ever-changing world that surrounds us suggests that we must make intuitive within ourselves those many practices we need to meet the exigencies of that world.—John R. Boyd, A Discourse on Winning & Losing

Attention to Attention

Philip Kapleau tells this story in his 1967 book “The Three Pillars of Zen”:

One day a man of the people said to the Zen master Ikkyu: “Master, will you please write for me some maxims of the highest wisdom?”

Ikkyu immediately took his brush and wrote the word “Attention.”

“Is that all?” asked the man. “Will you not add something more?”

Ikkyu then wrote twice running: “Attention. Attention.”

“Well,” remarked the man rather irritably, “I really don’t see much depth or subtlety in what you have just written.”

Then Ikkyu wrote the same word three times running: “Attention. Attention. Attention.”

Half angered, the man declared: “What does that word attention mean anyway?”

And Ikkyu answered, gently: “Attention means attention.”

Nature teaches us that all of our Actions have results. Therefore, to have the best life that you can have, it is imperative that you Act wisely. Your life is a result of your Actions, interacting in a complex flow with everything else like other humans, genetics, cultural traditions, the environment, family, information, etc.

Life rewards optimal adaptation to the existing conditions. Creatures (including people) who can adapt to current conditions will survive on their own terms; those that cannot adapt will decline, become subjugated, or perish. To adapt to current conditions, we have to be able to perceive current conditions clearly. To perceive clearly, our attention, our focus, must be in the best place for the conditions we are experiencing.

The OODA loop process uses the word “Observations” to describe the attentional process in the human being. Observations include all the data that is coming in to the individual. The individual might be consciously aware of some Observations (I see a red car over there) and there will be quite a few Observations that are in the background, or unconscious.

A simple example: If you are daydreaming about how you will spend your lottery winnings if you win the big jackpot and you fail to see the pothole your are walking toward, you might step in it and hurt yourself. Ouch! However, if you can come out of your daydream long enough to see the pothole before you fall in it, you have a good chance of avoiding it. To see it ahead of time, you must have the proper focus.

Some of us can daydream and still maintain enough external focus to see the potholes. Others of us need to drop the daydreaming or we will fall in all the potholes in our path.

What is the optimal focus? It depends on the context of the situation.

When focus is optimal, attention shifts fluidly and appropriately in accordance with the situation. When focus is problematic, the Observation process is not focusing properly on the context at hand. Inferior data from Observations often leads to inferior results. Superior, wiser Observations will yield superior results.

Don’t take my word for it, just pay attention and you will see for yourself how it works.

I’ll write some more on this later– As Ikkyu taught us, Attention is perhaps the most important topic to which we should give our attention.

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