An Insider's Guide to the
Perceptual Revolution

 
Attention is Everything

Every thought, feeling, perception or image in your mind uses a tiny amount of psychic energy.  Our level of vitality is constantly fluctuating in small increments, but people usually do not notice, because it constantly regenerates itself.  You generate vital energy every time you use your imagination to conceive of new ways to direct your attention.  Conversely, if you resort to the same ways of thinking and feeling for too long, your energy level will decline.

What we experience as the psyche is built upon the principles of energy and attention.  We all possess a certain amount of vital energy that our minds automatically utilize, converting it into a myriad of different forms.  The result is the vibrant combination of senses, ideas, memories, and mind’s-eye images that make up our awareness.  Attention is the force in the psyche which organizes these disparate aspects of our world into known patterns, creating a semblance of realness.  Each person has only a finite amount of vital energy to divide among the different layers of the psyche, so how we choose to distribute this energy--or how we focus our attention--is the basis for everything we understand. 

Nuances of attention

   Attention is the force of awareness that we focus on thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and mental imagery.  When we invest attention in certain patterns, we become more conscious of them; withdrawing attention causes them to sink deeper in the psyche, eventually becoming unconscious if we do not reengage them.  This force first encompasses the objects of our awareness, then distributes them throughout the psyche, from the forefront of the core self to the most buried levels of the unconscious.  Without engaging this ability, you could not construct even the most basic idea of who you are and what you believe in. 

Attention is the most fundamental expression of consciousness: its ever-shifting currents determine how aware you are of any given idea, emotion, sensation or image.  For instance, you can focus most of our attention on a conversation with someone, yet also remember that a song playing in the background was playing on your twentieth birthday.  You “track” the conversation more carefully than the memory, and by giving it priority, you invest more attention in it.  When the song ends, you forget all about your birthday, but you go on thinking about what the other person said, because this is how you have allotted your attention. 

The mind’s Attention has certain specialized levels, which carry out critical aspects of your mental and emotional functioning.  These differ greatly in carrying capacity, or the amount of data that we can process simultaneously in that compartmentalized region of our identity. 

   The conscious sphere contains everything we perceive as an immediate source of interest or concern.  It is the most narrow in scope of all the levels of the Psyche, yet is here that we make the most progress in changing our own patterns.  The limited focus of the conscious sphere allows us to be completely immersed in the affair at hand, without thousands of unrelated issues intruding on the thought process.  The subconscious, in contrast, has an inconceivable ability to hold and process data, but by nature, this expansive focus makes it incapable of addressing the minute-to-minute concerns of the physical world.  Only by compartmentalizing the totality of what we think and know can we bring a working interface between the inner and outer realities.

Exercising the Attention uses vital energy, the primal force that allows us to maintain focus on all the objects of our awareness.  Some ways of focusing the mind’s attention use more vital energy than others.  Our most habitual thoughts, feelings, and activities require the least amount of energy to engage, because we already devote a lot of Attention to maintaining them in the background of our awareness.  The downside to these routines is that they do almost nothing to raise our overall level of vitality.  Next are the patterns which are familiar, but aren’t part of our usual routine.  Engaging these is slightly more draining, because it requires that we reallocate Attention to areas that have “faded,” but it doesn’t involve making any new patterns.  The most taxing endeavor in human life is exploring ways of thinking, feeling, and perceiving which radically diverge from what we are accustomed to.  These are also the most fulfilling, in a very literal sense, because creative activities stimulate the generation of vital energy.  Thinking and behaving in ways that go against our habitual thoughts and responses can feel taxing at one level, but can also be invigorating. 

When people make a major change in how they behave or how they think about the world, they feel a passing sense of weariness.  We can attribute some of this to the emotional toll of giving up something reliable.  Anything that we get used to becomes a source of security, and part of this structure is taken away, we feel a bit more… well, insecure.   However, some aspects of mental attention are not so easily explained in psychoanalytic terms, because they involve abstract elements, such as sensing energy. 

Creativity is one of the most astonishing forces in the psyche, because it is a catalyst for change and reinvigoration.  Most elements of thoughts and emotions use up more energy than they produce, but the emotional force of inspiration is a portal to a self-sustaining wellspring of vitality.  When directed to harmonious ends, it can create revolutionary new ideas, plans, and structures; at its most misguided, it leads to chaos and discord. 

When we explore deep areas of ourselves that we do not usually engage, vital energy that normally goes toward sustaining our usual possibilities migrates to different areas.  It takes a lot of creative energy to consciously redirect our attention in this way.  It is the nature of creativity that when we exercise it for a sustained period, our inner energy reserves become depleted.  However, there are a couple of ways to minimize this.  First and foremost is to maintain a sense of inspiration through the entire creative process--to not get so caught up in the mental focus, by remaining open to the emotional side of exploring new territory.  The second is to take breaks from the creative process, immersing yourself in comfortable, familiar surroundings.  When we focus our attention on objects and activities that are familiar, you expend less creative energy.  By mentally “hibernating” for a little while, you allow your creative reserve to replenish itself (excessive inactivity is obviously a bad thing),

Inspiration is so crucial because it opens us to a vibrancy which restores our energy just as we use it up, sustaining our interest in an activity or thought process almost indefinitely.  This is a symbiotic process: not truly a loss, but a natural system in which the currents of vitality wax and wane.  Engaging your sense of curiosity and imagination opens new channels in which vital energy resides in the psyche, making possible a greater sense of focus and well being. 

Enacting any major personal changes engages a creative energy that “burns up” vitality in a way that can be distinctly felt.  Fortunately, this energy is in a process of continual renewal, and often recovers so quickly that we barely notice its fluctuations.  When we do not sustain this creative force, our vitality returns to a certain “baseline” level.  When we continue to pursue new directions in the psyche, our creativity seems to rejuvenate our energy level.  It “burns” some of our immediate energy on one hand, but in the long run, it increases our baseline level of vital energy. This is one reason that self-examination can seem extremely taxing, but leads to a greater sense of clarity.  The catch is, to increase your baseline energy level, you must finding new ways to feel inspired.  If you settle into patterns which are novel but just as entrenched as the old ones, you will eventually revert back to form. 

Mental tracks

Some theories of the mind portray human attention as a complex subject-object relationship, between the perceiver (subject) and the world of external phenomena (objects).  What throws this pretty equation off is the miracle of self-reflection.  For instance, imagine that one day, you are trying to solve a difficult question in your mind.  Say that you are buying a car, but you can’t decide on the color.  You eventually settle on two possible colors: cobalt blue and fire-engine red.  Once you have narrowed it down to this point, however, you find that both colors appeal to you at different levels.  This gives rise to an internal debate, causing your normally linear thought process to split into two mental tracks.  You perceive two distinct, subjective views of a single object (the unanswered question of what color car you will buy). 

Neither mental track seems able to come to a middle ground, which is too bad, because if they did, they would merge into a single focus, resolving your conflict and eliminating the extraneous thought processes.  At this point, you start to get frustrated with yourself for not being able to decide between these two points of view.  Your mind turns its focus inward once again, creating a new mental track or “subject” whose job is to watch the two other tracks argue with each other.  Tracks A and B still think that they are the real viewpoint (“Cobalt blue is better!” “No, fire engine red is better!”).  The question of what color car to buy is till the main object of their attention.  Track C, on the other hand, has a different agenda.  Since mental tracks A and B cannot resolve their differences, Track C assumes that they are flawed and that therefore, C is the real perspective. 

Track C serves the function of deciding between the other two.  This third layer of your attention expresses your best problem-solving skills, and mediates between the two viewpoints, trying to find common denominators that will bring you closer to the correct answer.  There are none, so you get impatient and just pick Track B’s answer.  At this point, Tracks A and C essentially “implode.”  They were conceived to solve a question, but since you have answered it, your conscious mind deduces that you no longer need to invest mental attention in either thought process. 

Many mental tracks, like the three described above, pop briefly into existence and back out again.  There are many other kinds, however, such as thought processes that build upon themselves over time until they become massive.  These are the most cohesive parts of who you are--the core facets of your being.  Even these, however, are only tiny segments of a larger gestalt.

Core self and ego

   In the Western world, we are socialized with a strong belief that each person has a "real” self—the identity which he or she is always consciously aware of.  This mindset gives structure to our sense of identity, but it also presents certain barriers to being realistic about ourselves.  While it is crucial to define the central beliefs and values in your life, giving too much credence to a desire for internal order builds a schism within the psyche.  The most familiar parts are allowed to stay in the inner circle of our awareness, and everything else is scattered throughout various levels of unconsciousness. 

The core self is the basic point of reference at the center of our conscious reality, the constant narrative in which we tell ourselves “this is who I really am.”  It assembles together the traits that we most often refer to when we reflect on our own identity.  Many of these aspects of our awareness are clearly important to our psychic makeup--for the security that they provide if for no other reason.  We have had good reason to keep many of them around, preserving them over the passage of time.  Often, they reflect our most profound life lessons to date.  Other levels of the core identity don't have such a clear purpose, yet all of them coalesce into the dynamic balance that gives life a sense of continuity.

The sense of “I,” the feeling of having a core identity, draws immense amounts of vital energy to the conscious regions of the mind.  This allows us to hone in on specific aspects of ourselves and our reality with brilliant intensity, constructing a core self that becomes the main platform for our conscious actions.  The core self is a more powerful agent of change than the id, ego, and superego put together.  It is the wellspring of what we call the will

What distinguishes the core self from the totality of the conscious mind is self-reflection: it is not just what you are aware of, but what you identify with above all else.  For instance, imagine that you are an agnostic, and one day someone tells you that they believe in Norse magic.  They say that there is no greater power than Odin the All-Father, and swear that performing daily rituals to call on those deities for guidance has helped them immeasurably.  Now, even if you don’t believe in Norse gods, you can still focus your conscious attention on the other person’s belief, wondering whether you might have come to accept those deities if the course of your life had gone differently.  Just because you perceive this as an option doesn’t mean that you see it as part of who you really are.  Believing in Norse Gods is a possibility which you recognize in your conscious mind, but exclude from your core self.

The ego is the part of each person that is compelled to seek out comfort, pleasure and stability.  In this vein, its baseline is to see the core self as totally inept when it comes to finding comfort and security.  If you don’t march in time with its conditioned defenses, it will resort to petty manipulation.  Since the ego has thinking as well as instinctive components, this inner conflict is really a case of self-manipulation.  Because the ego is a reflection of the core self, we can reason with it—to an extent.  It really doesn’t mean us any harm; quite the opposite.  Where its protective instinct goes awry is that it is hardwired to distrust our conscious sense of security.  This extra caution acts as a safeguard against times when we are too lax in defending our well being, but do not consciously realize that this places us at risk.  If you can prove to your ego that you can take care of yourself in many ways, its role will shift from being a coercive parent to a collaborator. 

The core self’s purpose is similar to that of the ego, but on a much broader scale: it reigns in all of our diverse aspects, traits, impulses, dreams, ideals, emotions, memories, sensations--the whole works.  The more we succeed at this ineffable undertaking, the more the ego’s energy dissipates.  Its essential traits remain, but we feel less inclined to project it as a manipulator who operates outside the law.  The impulse to look after our basic well-being is inescapable, but every time we replace one of the ego’s dysfunctional defense patterns with a more constructive response, we weaken the ego’s hold over the conscious mind. 

   An important part of the ego’s function is to systematize our sensory perceptions by creating definitions of things for those perceptions to work within.  The ego creates a complex web of ideas which forms an understanding of ourselves, our relationship to others, and the reality in which we live.  Through this process of organizing and interpreting data, the ego forms a framework for our conscious awareness: the core self.


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© 1999, 2003 by Lucius R.  Ringwald.  All rights reserved.