Thursday, August 27, 2009


Pay attention!
Are you paying attention?

It seems that attention is what's missing in this society. But how important is it?

Lately a few things I've been hearing and observing have made me think about this scarce commodity, so hard to come by in our rushed, atomised, money-obsessed world.

But what does it mean? And why have I suddenly become fixated on it?

In the last few years, a few books relating to this idea have been published in Australia. A young Australian philosopher, Damon Young, wrote Distraction: A Philosopher's Guide to Being Free, about the prevalence of distraction in the modern world, ruefully admitting his addiction to his Blackberry even while on holiday. And Hugh Mackay wrote Why Don't People Listen?, a well-received book in which he urged readers to start really listening to others.

Both of these books' topics are related to attention. Distraction is attention's obvious opposite. Listening is impossible to do properly if you're not attending to someone. But attention has wider scope than listening. It's a focus on someone or something, sometimes an intense focus. Why does it matter?

I regularly take my sister's little cocker spaniel, Jordan, to the park for a romp. When we get back to his place, I usually play Fetch with him for a little while. Occasionally we play Fetch at the park but he's usually too distracted by his all-consuming sense of smell to keep focused on the game. With such succulent, wafting scents everywhere, it's almost impossible to get him to follow the track of the ball (Fetch!) let alone bring it to me (Come!) and drop it at my feet (Give!)

What I have noticed, though, is that he performs much better when I focus on him. When I look at him and am very aware of what I intend him to do, what I want him to do, he seems to sense it. If I'm half-hearted and distracted, so is he.

Attention seems to be to be related to love and bonding. I have a strong bond with Jordan, and when I 'activate' it through my attention, this no doubt helps him to keep focused on me as we play this game.

Children, as we all know, absolutely crave their parents' attention, and will act out mercilessly if they don't get it.

I'm hopelessly intolerant of my friends having their mobile phones on and answering them when I'm socialising with them one-on-one, because for those minutes they're on the phone they've let go of that attentiveness that I'm hungry for.

Journalist Rupert Isaacson is the father of an autistic boy, Rowan. The child was incontinent, constantly having tantrums and unable to relate to others when Isaacson and his wife, psychology professor Kristin Neff, decided to take him on a trip to Mongolia to be healed by shamans (horses were already playing a large role in his progress, so the trip also involved horses).

After the shamanic healings took place, miraculous changes occurred. Rowan became toilet trained, his tantrums virtually ended and he made his first friend. Isaacson wrote a book about the experience, Horse Boy, and a documentary has been made about the journey.

Isaacson can only speculate on what actually caused the changes. But could part of the shamans' powers have come from the intense focus they had on Rowan, and the inner healing powers they were able to summon up, during the healings, partly through that focus?

And could some of the trip's success have come about because Rowan's parents were so intensely focused on him and what they wanted for him, not in a grasping way but in their willingness to drop everything for him? (This is not to suggest, of course, that attention will cure everything, or that parents with disabled children who can't be helped are not giving enough attention.)

Recently a UK journalist, Simon Singh, along with coauthor Edzard Ernst, wrote the book Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial (I think this is too complex an area to have only one opinion on; homeopathics are nothing but water, yet herbs are clearly medicines that we still need to know much more about.)

Naturally Singh was down on homeopathics, and I don't blame him. But when western scientists and science writers such as Singh have discovered that people benefit from homeopathics anyway, I think they too easily dismiss the reasons. There's the placebo effect of course; that's the mind healing itself, which is highly significant and extremely worth exploring.

But it's also acknowledged that sitting down with a naturopath who listens to your problems, asks you questions about all aspects of your life and gives you the time and attention that so many GPs are just too busy to give may also help the healing process.

But, you might well ask, what about animals and children? How could they possibly benefit from homeopathics and get better as some seem to? Of course, the usual maxim applies that many would have got better anyway regardless of treatment. But perhaps the actual dispensing of the homeopathics, with the ritual involved and the attentiveness necessary, has something to do with it?

Too bad that kind of thing can't be measured, and too bad it can't be bottled and marketed and made it into a brand (I guess capitalism tries to do that, but I'm talking about real attention …).

What if all medical students, in addition to having good marks, had to demonstrate qualities such as empathy and compassion? Perhaps this is an essential aspect of healing, not just an add-on?

Attention is perhaps a kind of love, or perhaps love is not the word I'm looking for. I don't mean individualistic love or romantic love but the life force that flows through us. Perhaps when we give something or someone our attention we allow our minds to provide the beginnings of healing. That's one reason why truth and justice commissions are so important after terrible massacres. Sufferers need to be heard by other humans.

And that's why in naturopathic, but also psychotherapeutic, consulting rooms all over the world, people seek out and are willing to pay large sums of money to those who will listen to their stories, mobile phones and pagers turned off and no computer blinking in the background. That's one aspect of therapy I really miss – the quietness of the consulting room, and the sense that someone was giving me their complete, undivided, fully focused attention, even if only for 45 minutes a week.

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