What happens when we focus
Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life
By Winifred Gallagher
New York: The Penguin Press, 2009
256 pp.; $25.95 cloth
WINIFRED GALLAGHER’S interest in attention began with her childhood awareness that “by focusing on one thing, you could ignore another.” But it was after a “biopsy from hell”—and a diagnosis of a particularly virulent form of cancer— that she had an epiphany that prompted her latest book: “This disease wanted to monopolize my attention, but [I decided that] as much as possible, I would focus on my life instead.” In Rapt, Gallagher, a respected behavioral sciences journalist, explores not only how we pay attention but also the effect on our lives of what we pay attention to. By no means a Buddhist book, Rapt nonetheless investigates one of Buddhism’s central concerns—attention— with insight and originality.
Gallagher’s scope is far-ranging. She takes us into classrooms and boardrooms, parks and ranches, and the labs of world-class researchers like Richard Davidson, who has shown that the highly trained attention of Tibetan Buddhist monks correlates with specific patterns of brain activity, such as synchronization of unusually vast expanses of neural real estate, including those associated with compassion and empathy. Gallagher begins with core questions— What is attention, exactly? What happens in your brain when you’re paying attention? How come painful experiences are more riveting than pleasant ones? How does your style of focusing affect your identity?—and then examines the effects of attention on love and work, temperament and ADHD, and peaks of flow and boredom. She looks at how exceptionally creative and productive people pay attention, and how poorly controlled attention affects children in school. Along the way, she makes interesting observations: for example, Westerners tend to focus narrowly on what helps them control a situation, while people from other cultures take a broader view, looking at the relationships among all the elements of a situation.
Gallagher’s central theme has two parts: “What you focus on creates your experience” and “Choosing those targets wisely is the key to the good life.” In short, “your life— who you are, what you think, feel, and do, what you love—is the sum of what you focus on.” She rightly points out, for example, that if you attend to a smiling face, you’ll have one sort of experience; focus on an angry face and you’ll have another. The experiences that flow from such “targets,” or objects of attention, will affect both your actions and your quality of life. Gallagher further states that what flows through your awareness actually shapes your brain over time, inclining your mind increasingly in one direction or another. She cites a study of London cab drivers showing that the hippocampus—a key part of the brain for visual-spatial learning— was measurably larger after the cabbies were trained to navigate the twisty maze of the city’s streets.
There is a lot of useful truth like this in Rapt, but one of the benefits— or drawbacks—of a book as well-written as this one is that its very clarity highlights the limitations of its thesis. In contrast to Gallagher’s insistence that it’s the target of attention that creates our experience, the Buddha taught that our experience is the result of many factors, including not just the object of attention but also intentions, hindrances, factors of awakening, virtue, and wisdom—all of which are affected, I would add, by biological, cultural, and economic forces. Furthermore, even the experiences that flow directly from a target of attention are conditioned by personal context. One woman might see a smiling child and feel happy because she’s about to have a baby, while another, seeing the same child, might feel sad because she recently had a miscarriage. A major aspect of Buddhist practice is nurturing an underlying framework that can hold any target of attention with compassion and equanimity: it’s the framework that makes the most difference, not the target. In fact, “choosing” more appealing targets can easily become just another kind of clinging, fueling the familiar and problematic Western conceit that the ego has unilateral, top-down control over the mind. Finally, many of the wholesome influences in our lives— transmission from a teacher, the supportive atmosphere of sangha, the accumulated merit of practice— work on us without our conscious awareness.
Indeed, most of what determines our moment-to-moment experience is outside the field of attention or, at most, dimly sensed in the shadows at its edges. If the mind, broadly defined, is the flow of information through the nervous system, almost all of the mind is forever unconscious. What does bubble up into awareness is the result of many neural assemblies competing with each other for entry into consciousness. For the most part, our conscious thoughts are merely ratifying choices already made in the recesses of the unconscious.
But even though most of our being is designed to be unconscious, we privilege consciousness and its contents, since that’s what we know. And from privileging consciousness it’s only a short step to clinging to awareness and its objects, and to elevating and cherishing the apparent “I” of consciousness. Because mindfulness—important as it is— can be so engaging, we may come to see it almost as an end in itself, rather than as one of several skillful means for cultivating virtue, wisdom, and an open heart.
All this aside, x remains a useful and lively book. Gallagher brings a fresh and sometimes provocative perspective to themes that may have grown a little too familiar—attention, mindfulness, and awareness— and helps us see them anew. And one of the charms of reading this book is finding ways in which Buddhist thinking resonates throughout. In a chapter titled “Decisions: Focusing Illusions,” Gallagher cites the research of psychologist Barry Schwartz, who showed that the explosion of options facing modern consumers—dozens of different brands of the same product jostling for attention on the supermarket shelf—actually makes us more indecisive and more anxious about making the right choice. Schwartz encourages us to become less attentive to the myriad choices so we can pick something that’s “good enough.” How Buddhist to think that the more ways we have to fulfill our desires, the more we are likely to suffer.
Rick Hanson is a neuropsychologist, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom in San Rafael, California, and editor of the Wise Brain Bulletin (www.wisebrain.org). A former board member of Spirit Rock Meditation Center, he is the author of Buddha’s Brain, to be published by New Harbinger in November 2009.