Three forms of attention guide us through life
For much of my life I have been wondering why people act the way they do. Not only because of the ‘strange’ behaviour that people show, but also because of the everyday, ‘normal’ behaviour that people show. And I have to admit; in many cases I find the behaviour that we call ‘normal’ more difficult to understand than the behaviour that we call ‘strange’. My experiences in 20 years of foster care have made it clear to me that there is a lot of behaviour that we as a society do not yet understand, which means that we cannot deal with it properly, as witnessed by the feeling of inability and powerlessness among parents, foster parents and the many professionals that are involved.
What has become clear to me over the years is that social problems always have something to do with attention. For the past five years I have been able to experiment with attention exercises through aikido, which is an art of movement and attention. Both on the mat and in everyday life, it turns out that the way I pay attention determines to a large extent the quality of my relationships and thus the quality of my life. Through a number of articles on attention I share my knowledge about the effect of attention and the influence on life. Each article builds on the previously published articles. The first article was mainly about the question "What is attention?". (This article is not yet available in English.) The second article, which can be read via this link, focused on our modern way of life and the problems we face because of the way we use attention.
In this article I want to further deepen and clarify the relationship between attention and life by comparing it with the relationship between force and matter. A great deal of research has been done into the relationship between force and matter and it appears that different kinds of force are needed to explain the existence, properties and behaviour of matter. I will first briefly discuss the relationship between force and matter and then clarify the relationship between attention and life.
The relationship between force and matter
The term ‘force’ can evoke different associations with different people. You can think of muscle strength, electricity, or the power of engines. I estimate that most people will not initially associate force with the fundamental existence of matter. Yet that is the case: without force, matter cannot exist! That means quite a bit! Before you read on, it is good to just think about it that without force there would be no matter, which means no universe and no life, as we know it.
In order to explain the existence and properties of matter, physics assumes that there are different forces of nature that act on matter by creating relationships between individual pieces of matter. The forces themselves are not visible, but from the fact that there is a relationship between individual pieces of matter, it is inferred that there must be something that creates this relationship.
The strong force, by far the strongest force we know, keeps the particles in the atomic nuclei together. Electromagnetic force works between positive and negative charged particles and ensures the cohesion between atoms and molecules. In everyday life we know this force in the form of lightning and electricity, but friction is also a form of electromagnetic force.
The third force of nature that we are dealing with is gravity: the gravitational force. This is the (attracting) influence that a large mass of matter has on other matter. The greater the mass, the greater the attractive force. This force is small compared to the other forces, therefore at the atomic level, the other forces nullify this force, but in everyday life we know gravity all too well. Due to gravity, the apple falls towards the earth, the earth revolves around the sun and we are kept with both feet on the ground so that we do not float away.
Three different forces, which seem to work in completely different ways, are needed to explain the existence, properties of and the connection between matter. What’s special is that, despite the enormous amount of research, it is still not yet clear how these forces work; especially gravity remains a mystery. However, this does not mean that we do not use these forces to shape our lives. Apparently we don't need to know exactly how electricity works to generate and use it.
The relationship between attention and life and the analogy with force and matter
Let’s move on to the relationship between attention and life. I already introduced that relationship in my previous articles. I see attention as the basis, or rather, the prerequisite that allows us to live our lives. Thanks to attention we can pay attention, protect ourselves, care for each other, be interested and do what needs to be done. Without attention, I believe there would be no interest, awareness, perception, or goal-oriented action. Through attention we relate to the world in which we live. Life needs attention; the same way matter needs force. Attention itself can not be perceived, but from the fact that there is a relationship between us and the world around us, it is inferred that there must be something that creates this relationship. Attention creates life because it creates living relationships and meaningful connections. Force is not capable of doing that. And just as different kinds of force are needed to explain the existence, properties and behaviour of matter, different kinds of attention are needed to explain people's lives and behaviour.
Everyone knows, I think, that attention is important in personal relationships, education, work, learning, research and leisure. Yet we have no clear idea about what attention is. For one it mainly has to do with focus and concentration, for the other with consciousness, or being there for each other and supporting each other. In literature and on the Internet the descriptions also vary widely (see my first article on attention for examples). In order to be able to use attention in society in a constructive way, I think it is important that people have the same idea of what attention is, so that we can understand each other in communication. I propose to distinguish between three forms of attention, each form clearly distinguishable from the others, both somatic (physical aspects) and in terms of its influence on life. In my previous article (Attention to attention 2) I have already discussed the distinction between Focus- and Broad attention. In this article a third form of attention is added: Life-attention.
In order to arrive at a more differentiated picture of attention, I will briefly describe the three forms of attention, after which I will delve deeper into the interrelationships, the risks to life and how we can use this knowledge to live healthier lives and work towards a healthier society.
What makes a person live? From a medical perspective we are explained how our physical body works, but not what makes a person live. What happens in our body in the field of metabolism and biochemical processes is incredibly complicated, but chemistry is what happens between atoms and molecules, which are matter. Chemistry is not life and it does not create life. I therefore assume that there is something other than chemistry that makes a person live. My suggestion is to call that principle Life-attention.
If we can use the term 'strong force' for what we believe is necessary to make loose protons and neutrons into a strong nucleus - without knowing how it works - then we can also use the term 'Life-attention' for that what makes an organism live, without having to know what it is or how it works. With this new term we have not really explained anything, but we do make it clear that 'attention' and 'life' are inextricably linked, just as 'force' and 'matter' belong together; without one, the other cannot exist.
The idea for Life-attention has arisen during the development of a support programme for people with cancer. We found that some of the problems they are struggling with, such as anxiety, insecurity, fatigue and pain, did not fit well in the model I used up till then. Something was missing in the base, or rather it was the base that was missing: life itself, or Life-attention. Life-attention is directly linked with 'being' and our attitude towards the life we are living. Life-attention is present throughout the body, but has its ‘home base’ in the lower part of the body: our pelvis. When you let your attention sink into your pelvis, you go to your Life-attention. If you do that, you will notice that the attention will go inside and you become (more) calm.
Just as atoms and molecules not only need the strong force to exist, but also electromagnetic force, an organism needs more than Life-attention to life. To survive it needs Focus-attention. Focus-attention creates filters and provides direction. It chooses, as it were: this is good for me and that is not; I let this in, not that; this environment feels good, that one doesn't. Focus-attention is a caring mechanism, linked to our (basic) needs, but it also makes us fight, flee and/or freeze, if necessary. In other words, it drives our protection mechanism. Our protection has a huge reach. Focus attention works in our body, in our blood and cells as well as in our social intercourse, so it works internally and externally.
Focus-attention, like electromagnetic force, is the bridge between the micro and macro worlds. And it is interesting to see that Focus-attention, like electromagnetic force, is all about attracting and repelling, resistance, friction and pressure. Do you experience pressure in your life? Do you experience friction when dealing with people? Are you attracted to something or someone? In all cases it is the Focus-attention that does its job.
So we use Focus-attention in a social context, but not only then. It is also the attention we use to concentrate, for example when we read, write, or think. This is because Focus-attention, next to our protection mechanism, is also linked to our imagination. The physical responses that result from "protecting yourself" and "concentrating" are therefore very similar. In both cases there is increased alertness, focused attention and muscle tension.
Focus-attention works from the upper part of our body, from the heart to our head. You use your Focus-attention if you focus your attention clearly. This is also the case if you have clear expectations, judgments, desires or beliefs. They all evoke alertness and tension.
Broad – or Connecting attention
The third form of attention is the broad, or Connecting attention. This connects us to the world we live in and to the other people, animals and plants we live with. Connecting attention is for life what gravity is for matter.
Where Focus-attention stands for dynamism, action, attraction and repulsion, Broad attention creates peace and connection. It makes us part of a larger whole that provides us support and stability. You can compare it to the way in which, through gravity, the earth is part of a solar system, and therefore automatically has a fixed place in the galaxy and the universe.
Connecting attention works from the centre of our body. It brings relaxation and tranquillity.
The picture shows the different forms of attention in our body. Life-attention is purple, Focus-attention is green and Broad attention is yellow.
The different forms of attention each have their own influence, but all three act from one and the same body in the same life, which is influenced by countless other lives. In my previous article I already talked about the side effects of focus-attention and imagination such as instability, tension and stress, and inequality. The different forms of attention influence each other, help each other, but can also get in each other's way. I will give you some examples.
When something goes wrong in our body (invaders, disease, damage), our protection system, powered by Focus-attention, is activated. Because the internal healing process demands a lot off attention, the inward Focus-attention will increase and the Broad attention will decrease. That is why when you are sick; you have little stability, no appetite for social activities and difficulty to concentrate. When the sickness gets less, you will have more Broad attention and all those things will come back.
When Focus-attention increases through imagination, concentration and / or feelings of insecurity, this will also increase the tension in the body. Although the Focus-attention is now directed outwards, rather than inwards (as with illness) stability and feelings of connection will decrease all the same. In the long run, this is not a healthy way of living, because man is not 'made' to experience a lot of stress for a long time or be deprived of feelings of connection. An unhealthy large amount of Focus-attention often goes hand in hand with an unhealthy small amount of Broad attention and is expressed through physical and social problems, such as stress, cardiovascular disease, depression, loneliness and relationship problems (see also Attention for attention 2).
The good news is that this influence also works the other way around. In a difficult, stressful situation you can consciously use Broad - and Life-attention to relax and reduce stress that is created by Focus-attention. You use Broad-attention when you make pleasant contact with other people, animals, or plants. This is the reason why meditation and a massage bring rest and relaxation. Some practice is needed when you want to go to your Broad and Life attention through meditation, when you are in a stressful situation. Breathing exercises and touching can help you.
Collaboration between Focus-attention and Broad attention is created when attention is kept ‘low’ during concentration. Because then you stay connected, you do not shut off more than necessary and you create little internal tension. This collaboration requires some practice, but anyone who is very good at something will apply this principle.
Life changes under pressure
I think it has become clear that life is influenced by an ever-changing mix of the three types of attention, whereby under normal circumstances Life-attention is stable and Broad and Focus-attention is alternated, for example by alternating personal contacts, task-oriented concentration and moments of rest. But what happens to attention when life gets under pressure?
Back to the analogy: what happens when you put pressure on matter? Exactly, the electromagnetic forces in the material will increase. The material can therefore rise in temperature, for example. A human being reacts more or less the same. Put pressure on (the life of) a person and you will see an increase of Focus-attention. He will become tense, restless and insecure; he will get into his head and cannot stop thinking. We can become rebellious, judgmental, and value our own needs more than anyone else's. We go in defence, use flight- and fight behaviour. When the pressure becomes too great, we feel powerless. Fighting or fleeing is no longer useful. The only option we have left is freezing. We then largely lose contact with the outside world and become still. We drop out or become compliant and do what we are told to do.
As soon as the pressure decreases, people again start making more use of Broad-attention. They make contact, relax, become calmer, more confident and take responsibility for what they do. Imagination becomes less dominant and the other becomes someone (again) with whom you are connected, instead of someone who wants something from you, or needs something from you.
In my previous article I described extensively that in our society, under the influence of imagination and goal-oriented thinking, we made Focus-attention far more important than is healthy for us or our environment. It is ‘normal’ that we pay more attention to ‘what we want to achieve in life’ than to 'being connected'. Focus-attention has become the dominant attention in society and making use of your Broad-attention has almost become something you only do when you deserve it. In other words: stressed Focus-attention puts pressure on life. The consequences are, among other things, stress-related illnesses, social problems and inequality. Click here if you would like to learn more about the effects of too much Focus-attention.
To an open basic attitude/posture
I think if we understood better what Focus-attention does to us, we wouldn't be so reckless. What I think would be socially healthy is a change of attitude in which the emphasis is more on Life-attention and Broad attention than on Focus-attention. I call this attitude, in which imagination plays second violin and life and our connections first violin, "the open basic attitude/posture". This is a relaxed and open attitude, accompanied by an open and relaxed posture, in which we pay attention to our environment, the people with whom we live and our own body. We can understand the importance of imagination, but we don't have to put it on a pedestal. Another human being is first of all a person with whom I can feel connected, and in second place someone with an opinion, or belief. This opinion is less important than the connection we have, even if it is different from mine.
I understand why this is not easy. Another person's belief, translated into behaviour, can be seen as an insult to me if I have a different belief - especially if I am convinced that my belief represents the truth. My conviction puts me in the Focus-attention and will therefore create tension in my body, activate my protection mechanism and decreases my Broad-attention. My stability will decrease and I will use fight, flight or freeze behaviour, with which I will confront or exclude the other person. Chances are that the other person, influenced by me, will see this as an insult, so that, in defence, he or she will also start to use his fight, flight or freeze behaviour. Since we are both convinced that the other person started this quarrel ("he/she insulted me!"), we see each other as the person guilty of the situation and neither of us will see our own role in the escalation. This works between individual people, but also between groups of people.
It is good to consider that things can be done differently. All it takes is for either one to use Broad, connecting attention instead of just Focus-attention. This will result in making contact, instead of feeling offended or looking away. The reason is that when we use Connecting attention, we are another kind of people and we see people in a different light. We can make a distinction between people and problems. When Focus-attention has so much influence on people's behaviour, this raises the question what the relationship is between attention and identity. I would like to go into that some other time.
We need three forms of attention to live. We do not know what attention is or how it works, just as we do not know how the forces of nature work. Life is a mystery, just like the relationship between Focus-attention and imagination and between Broad-attention and the feeling of connection, but that does not diminish their effect.
This theory is now supported by many exercises, in which attention and the relationship between people are central. I share these exercises through workshops, courses, coaching and aikido lessons. Living from an open basic attitude is living from the power of connection.
Thanks for reading this article. Sharing is appreciated, of course, as is writing a comment.
Hans de Win.