Humans are, fundamentally, focusers of attention.
Reality, after all, is big.
Have you noticed?
Millions of books; billions of people; trillions of facts, words of advice, philosophies, and theories. The microorganisms, trees, cells, atoms, quarks, and stars of the universe are beyond counting—not to mention the connections running through everything like a cosmic web.
Even the reality of our direct experience in any single moment is too much to take in: colors, sounds, breezes, leaves, ants, clouds, the texture of a wall, feelings, thoughts, sensations, memories.
We are always, then, focusing our attention on only certain aspects of that reality. Usually without being conscious of it, we are focused on certain facts, certain people, certain disappointments, certain fond memories, and so on.
Every human instant is a focusing of attention. Every human lifetime reflects an overall habit of attention. Do we have a chip on our shoulder? Then we focus on where to find more chips. Are we focused on opportunities? Then we’ll notice them. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Seek and ye shall find.”
Where do our choices for what to focus on come from? We’ve accumulated them from various sources and according to our particular nature. The exact origins don’t matter. What matters is that they are not absolute. What matters is that we have adopted them. We have chosen them at some level, even if we haven’t noticed that choosing.
Our choices may be serving us or not. They may have served us at one point but no longer. They may have helped us get along with certain people, greasing us along our journey.
We focus at individual and at collective levels. We are part of a society that focuses on certain things. Science, for example, is a major focus in the West right now, whereas mystical experiences are not.
To be human is to focus attention. To be more fully human is to recognize that you can choose what to focus on.
Not only that, you can choose the lens that you use to focus. By lens I mean an idea or framing concept. We always look at events, or experience reality, through a lens of ideas or concepts. Our habitual ideas weave together into our beliefs. Lens, set of ideas, conceptual framework, beliefs. I’m equating all these.
We usually take a particular lens focused on a particular thing as absolute reality. In fact, it’s not even close. It’s one possible reality among an endless number of realities. The poet Wallace Stevens put it this way: “Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities that it can be made into.”
Take a romantic break-up. I could focus on the break-up or on new opportunities to meet people. If I choose to focus on the break-up, I could focus on it through any number of lenses—beliefs I have about why the break-up happened: ‘She couldn’t handle certain feelings,’ or ‘I didn’t have enough confidence in myself.’
Beliefs are far more pervasive and fundamental than most people realize. They constitute our real faith. Not the faith we pretend to have or would like to have, but our everyday, operational faith. They color our reality at levels most of us aren’t aware of—but could be aware of. Even the concept of causation, as the philosopher David Hume famously noted, is a species of faith. (We don’t ever see causation itself, just sequences of events.)
To be human is to focus attention. We have to focus attention. There’s no escaping that. (Reality is big. Have you noticed?) To be more fully human is to focus attention consciously, instead of by default. It is to be aware that we are always using a certain lens and always focusing that lens on certain things.
We are lens-wielders.
A satisfying life results from a willingness to try different lenses on different things, and then consciously monitoring how those choices serve us at fundamental levels.
Humans are not just focusers, then, they are experimenters.
One of the gifts of science is its emphasis on experimentation. But experimenting can go deeper and broader than most scientists—and most people in general—are aware.
Experimentation is the very ground of human experience. This is why no pronouncements from any philosopher ever can fully answer our questions about life. We have to try philosophies out.
To live a satisfying life is not to arrive at an answer carved in stone. It is to experiment with where and how to give our attention in any given moment and then observe the results.
You can take a walk and complain, or take a walk and celebrate—how your legs swing, how the sunlight plays in the leaves, how much you know and how much more you’d like to know. When I’m angry, or feel hopeless, I can try to push those feelings away, or I can allow them to be there. Then I can see what results from each attitude.
There is no substitute for this individual, personal, lived experimentation.
We each have to do it.
Welcome to this being human.
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