On doing some research into the great Afghan-Scot mystic, Idries Shah, I came across this brilliant piece in his book “Learning How To Learn” 1979 pp85-88:
One of the keys to human behaviour is the attention-factor.
Anyone can verify that many instances, generally supposed to be important or useful human transactions on any subject (social, commercial, etc.,) are in fact disguised attention-situations.
It is contended that if a person does not know what he is doing (in this case that he is basically demanding, extending or exchanging attention) and as a consequence thinks that he is doing something else (contributing to human knowledge, learning, buying, selling, informing, etc.,) he will:
(a) be more inefficient at both the overt and the covert activity;
(b) have less capacity of planning his behaviour and will make mistakes of emotion and intellect because he considers attention to be other than it is.
If this is true, it is most important that individuals realise:
1. That this attention-factor is operating in virtually all transactions;
2. That the apparent motivation of transactions may be other than it really is. And that it is often generated by the need or desire for attention-activity (giving, receiving, exchanging).
3. That attention-activity, like any other demand for food, warmth, etc., when placed under volitional control, must result in increased scope for the human being who would then not be at the mercy of random sources of attention, or even more confused than usual if things do not pan out as they expect.
CERTAIN PRINCIPLES MAY BE ENUNCIATED. THEY INCLUDE:-
1. Too much attention can be bad, (inefficient).
2. Too little attention can be bad.
3. Attention may be ‘hostile’ or ‘friendly’ and still fulfil the appetite for attention. This is confused by the moral aspect.
4. When people need a great deal of attention they are vulnerable to the message which too often accompanies the exercise of attention towards them. E.g., someone wanting attention might be able to get it only from some person or organisation which might thereafter exercise (as ‘its price’) an undue influence upon the attention-starved individual’s mind.
5. Present beliefs have often been inculcated at a time and under circumstances connected with attention-demand, and not arrived at by the method attributed to them.
6. Many paradoxical reversals of opinion, or of associates and commitments may be seen as due to the change in a source of attention.
7. People are almost always stimulated by an offer of attention, since most people are frequently attention-deprived. This is one reason why new friends, or circumstances, for instance, may be preferred to old ones.
8. If people could learn to assuage attention-hunger, they would be in a better position than most present cultures allow them, to attend to other things. They could extend the effectiveness of their learning capacity.
9. Among the things which unstarved people (in the sense of attention) could investigate, is the comparative attraction of ideas, individuals, etc., apart from their purely attention-supplying function.
10. The desire for attention starts at an early stage of infancy. It is, of course, at that point linked with feeding and protection. This is not to say that this desire has no further nor future development value. But it can be adapted beyond its ordinary adult usage of mere satisfaction.
11. Even a cursory survey of human communities shows that, while the random eating tendency, possessiveness and other undifferentiated characteristics are very early trained or diverted-weaned-the attention-factor does not get the same treatment. The consequence is that the adult human being, deprived of any method of handling his desire for attention, continues to be confused by it: as it usually remains primitive throughout life.
12. Very numerous individual observations of human transactions have been made. They show that an interchange between two people always has an attention-factor.
13. Observation shows that people’s desires for attention ebb and flow. When in an ebb or flow of attention-desire, the human being not realising that this is his condition, attributes his actions and feelings to other factors, e.g., the hostility or pleasantness of others. He may even say that it is a ‘lucky day’, when his attention needs have been quickly and adequately met. Re-examination of such situations has shown that such experiences are best accounted for by the attention-theory.
14. Objections based upon the supposed pleasure of attention being strongest when it is randomly achieved do not stand up when carefully examined. ‘I prefer to be surprised by attention’ can be paraphrased by saying, ‘I prefer not to know where my next meal is coming from’. It simply underlines a primitive stage of feeling and thinking on this subject.
15. Situations which seem different when viewed from an oversimplified perspective (which is the usual one) are seen to be the same by the application of attention-theory. e.g.: People following an authority-figure may be exercising the desire for attention or the desire to give it. The interchange between people and their authority-figure may be explained by mutual-attention behaviour. Some gain only attention from this interchange. Some can gain more.
16. Another confusion is caused by the fact that the object of attention may be a person, a cult, an object, an idea, interest, etc. Because the foci of attention can be so diverse, people in general have not yet identified the common factor-the desire for attention.
17. One of the advantages of this theory is that it allows the human mind to link in a coherent and easily-understood way many things which it has always (wrongly) been taught are very different, not susceptible to comparison, etc. This incorrect training has, of course, impaired the possible efficiency in functioning of the brain, though only culturally, not permanently.
18. The inability to feel when attention is extended, and also to encourage or to prevent its being called forth, makes man almost uniquely vulnerable to being influenced, especially in having ideas implanted in his brain, and being indoctrinated.
19. Raising the emotional pitch is the most primitive method of increasing attention towards the instrument which increased the emotion. It is the prelude to, or accompaniment of, almost every form of indoctrination.
20. Traditional philosophical and other teachings have been used to prescribe exercises in the control and focussing of attention. Their value, however, has been to a great measure lost because the individual exercises, prescribed for people in need of exercise, have been written down and repeated as unique truths and practised in a manner, with people and at a rate and under circumstances which, by their very randomness, have not been able to effect any change in the attention-training- This treatment has, however, produced obsession. It continues to do so.
21. Here and there proverbs and other pieces of literary material indicate that there has been at one time a widespread knowledge of attention on the lines now being described. Deprived, however, of context, these indications survive as fossil indicators rather than being a useful guide to attention-exercise for contemporary man.
Attention upon oneself, or upon a teacher, without the exercise of securing what is being offered from beyond the immediate surroundings, is a sort of short-circuit. As Rumi said: ‘Do not look at me, but take what is in my hand’.
Makes you think!