So I guess probably everyone here agrees with at least one of the following three propositions: that paying attention is worthwhile in and of itself, that the writing or other artwork that comes out of such moments of attention can be compelling, and that paying attention can lead to authentic/original insights. As a writer and reader, I’ve long admired poets such as Mary Oliver and John Haines whose poetry seems to originate in just this kind of attention to the world (which isn’t to say that I don’t like other kinds of writing, too). My question for writers and artists, though, is this: is there a special kind of attention that leads to the best insights? And does it exist purely in the observational moment, or is it also something that comes from immersion in the act of creation as well? What is the precise (or even the approximate) relationship between these two periods of attention?
I suppose if a person made the same observation Dave did but used the word “thinking” in place of attention, others might perceive the speaker’s meaning, but it would seem diffuse like an ancient Greek speaking about the nature of the phenomena we are discussing. Substituting “paying attention” brings it into sharper focus because so often we do not actively think, and slip into the everyday passive thinking where significance is submerged into the commonplace. The metaphor of commerce strikes the emotive cord that we are skinflints with attention- how much like a scrooge we are in refusing to pay for anything and winding up with the fools bargain of meaningless existence that no longer speaks to us.
The commerce vehicle does transport us some distance, but this is rugged terrain- can it really take us where we need to go? One difficulty is this model enforces a separation, and at the most crude level reduces the stuff of mind and heart to commodities that we must be do our American Yankee thing on. Let’s get industrious with paying attention, and bring home the bacon! Fat lot of good that will get you.
Focusing awareness is central, but this in itself is wide of the mark- after all many technicians focus their attention with great precision and are not within the state of mind we are interested in here. So it is really the kind of thinking, the kind of attention that brings greater penetration into what we are describing. There aren’t a lot of verbs left around that get to the heart of what we have left behind, but perhaps Levi-Bruhl’s suggestion of the term “participation” will take us closer. I am not suggesting we adopt a primitivism of the “participation mystique” he identified, but that we understand that our precepts are in fact participations between ourselves at one pole, and the unknowable otherness of the things-in-themselves
at the other pole. If we conceive the process of what we do to that other, then it only enforces the dissociation that positivism methodically enforces in our mental habits. Around the time of Acquinas, we see him filling every page with a now unfamiliar verb form of participation- for example that species participates the genus, matter participates form and effect participates cause.
By the nineteenth century, Coleridge suggested an alternative mental style he called polar logic. One is conscious of the polarity between viewer and viewed, but we recognize that the hidden power and glory of creation is the activity in between the poles. What is happening when we are aware of something is much like the participation in viewing a rainbow. There is a participation between the sun, droplets of water, the interaction of light bending around molecules in them at different rates, and our position in space so that we can see that rainbow at the position it appears to be. **
In the act of observing, we can, unlike the primitive, be conscious of our participation with that world beyond our senses. The interactions with our personal narratives, our mood, the intensity of particular sense primitives that draw attention to themselves for participation inside of a mental construct conjured in our mind- it is a dance of exquisite subtlety.
It is a dance one participates differently in the observational moment than in the participation within the creative act. At base, both are creation, since the mind erects mental models of the world in every act of observation. Current research in neuroscience appears to be getting very comfortable with a notion familiar to artists and mystics- that the activity of associating fragments of disassociated entities into a coherent whole is fundamental not just to higher level thought, but is integral to simple acts of observation. This participation on the dance floor of neurons takes place in even the most primitive organisms perceiving their environment. As researchers like Damasio are conjecturing, consciousness is a continuum of ever greater complexity of the basic neural activity of creating what he calls “maps” that can grow in complexity until they become full models of reality that continue their existence in our dreams. Whereas the lion may dream of the antelope and its model can make it the lion aware of an antelope’s recent presence through scent, without such direct sense data triggering a particular mental model, it cannot participate the antelope, even though it may be standing directly over fresh tracks.
It is not that the sharp edge on the depression made by the antelope in the wet sand was invisible to the lion, it was that their minds did not have the versatility to associate esoteric sensory details into the dance of participation with the antelope. The ancient hominid could make the connection between the sharpness and orientation of the marks and then read the writing left by the antelope. It could see the antelope in time and could project from a mark in the recent past the vision participated in their mind of a future kill. So although it is fashionable to associate more acute senses with more primitive forms of observation, observation by hominids can have exceptional merit over that of other mammals. So the versatility of allowing participation with unconventional sources of sense data is something we can do when we have heightened awareness of our participation. Mystic practices can quiet the mind’s propensity to perpetuate the mundane, but this is an example of how the mind can also reveal what is otherwise invisible due to the ability to making connections that only an active awareness can make. Awareness in observation must not shrink from such contributions, even if they come from faculties one normally associates with linear thinking.
The power of representations used to map sense data in observation took on new power when our mental habits changed around 35 thousand years ago. Suddenly, after a million years of using the same kind of tools that H. Erectus used, a particular newcomer started creating a very new kind of stone chipping technique, started making representations of their prey scratched or painted on rock surfaces, made jewelry, and so on. The Upper Paleolithic Revolution
is almost universally recognized among paleontologists as a cultural explosion without precedent. Suddenly the archeological record is filled with an explosion of innovations. This was our own species- and we had already been around 100K years by this time. This was not an evolution of replication chemistry, but an evolution in how we replicate the stuff of mind. An evolution of consciousness that vaults us beyond neuroscience determinism to poetic freedom with the stuff of reality.
What in our mental style changed? What form of awareness were we suddenly capable of? It seems a dubious proposition to assume some wholly new mechanism was created in exquisite complexity out of thin air. Speculations about what happened center on the idea that mental maps started becoming “misapplied” to contexts that they were not made for. We know this as the mistakes in perception that leads to a completely new way of looking at an old problem- the misapplication of a rich mental map to another situation. When one loosens the tight grip that particular mental models have over precepts and narratives, one begins to become aware of, and allow alternative mixing and matching of models to a particular situation in the act of participation. At the heart of it, this is the heart of the creative state. As soon as we insist on bringing things into sharp focus, the vague existence of alternate dance partners in the participation evaporate quickly away, and a single phantasm grips our consciousness. This versatility with the mental mapping we built up over millions of years in pre hominid and even pre mammalian species was simply freeing the maps from particular contexts. The capacity to create mental images (or if you like representations or Damasio “maps” or memes) was the same.
It is not the passive paying attention to the dance, but greater participation in the dance of observation and creation that is at the core of what is being asked in Dave’s post. There is a special kind of attention. It is called polar logic, or participating the representations. The heightened awareness during observation that yields the birth of a new representation is different than the kind of creations resulting from applying existing representations to new contexts, but the mental apparatus of finding best fits between percepts and representations is the same as in observation. The difference with creation is that a representation or set of representations are used in a new way, or applied to a completely different context, the result of which is a new vision.
Acknowlegement and Notes:
My debt is to Barfield and his “Saving the Appearances”, which forms the main insights as well as provided many of the illustrative examples. As I retell what Barfield thought, I come better to know what I think. He would not at all be comfortable with my dualism, because I border on what he decries as “double think”.
** Attention on the “viewer” end of the polarity is typical for idealists and mystics. Attention on the “viewed” end as is typical of the positivists. Both deny the reality of the participation between these poles. Positivists recoil from concepts like Coleridge’s polar logic, denigrating it as not really being thinking at all. Their point is that it violates the law of the excluded middle
– promoting unclear thinking that runs afoul of fundamental principles of identity and mutual exclusion.