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Paying Attention

Jan. 15, 2022

by Dr. David Fialk, Editor / Publisher

Having only just rinsed my fingertips, say after finishing an orange, sometimes I don't dry them on a towel, but only flick away the water a few times into the sink.

Then, if the cat happens to be along my route back to this computer, sometimes I bend down and wash his face with my still damp fingers. He puts up with this, apparently grudgingly. However, I know that, actually he is secretly enjoying it, reminding him as it does of the attentions his mother similarly imposed on him in his now distant kitten-hood.

The curious thing is that, every time, after this five-second bathing ritual is over, invariably, he begins to wash himself; you know, licking his shoulder or front paw, and rubbing that paw's wetness across his face or head. It's some kind of neurological reflex.

We are all creatures of habit. The fact that 99% of our thoughts never make it up to our awareness has been used to deny our free will: "The brain decides before you become aware of the decision." But the CEO of a company is still in control, even if he, having empowered his senior managers, is not conscious of every decision being made. Only important matters are brought to his attention. So too, the apex of our brain and person, our frontal lobe, delegates all trivial concerns to lesser, lower, more automatic, cerebral authorities.

Everyone knows that they should eat better. As a physician, the trick has been to get the idea through to my patients in a new way. Back before the days of sushi's popularity I would suggest, "If they dropped you in the middle of Tokyo, within a week you'd be eating raw fish."

Recently it's occurred to me that adaptability is not restricted to our palates. We get used to almost anything. If a child is raised by wolves, he acts like a wolf.

You may think that your opinions and preferences are yours, integral to your identity, but, just to pick one example, overwhelmingly, it's been found that people vote for whichever candidate's advertising they hear the most. Independent thinking takes a lot of time and energy. It's easier and more comforting, at least in the short run, to fall in with the clique, tribe or herd.

I address this conditioning in an article I wrote last week. The article asserts that Mexico's plague of slow, shoddy workmanship has its roots in the hacienda slaves' passive-aggressive attitude. That attitude continues wantonly, destructively today, long after haciendas and slavery have disappeared.

I've always been a big believer in the concept that when you point a finger at someone else, you are pointing three at yourself. The son of a narcissist, I'm always thinking about what things mean for me. Here I wonder, what habits do I need to overcome? Which automatic, subconscious thought processes ought I become more aware of?

Meditation may be some occult, spiritual practice, but it is also the simple practice of focusing your attention. Arch-atheists, like Sam Harris, meditate, because they understand that when we pause and take a breath, we make better decisions: "I don't need to say that." "I don't need another cookie."

After declaring that, like Pavlov's dogs, "Mind is conditioned" the Buddhists go on to rather cryptically assert, "Ordinary mind is enlightenment."

This conundrum resolves when we consider that, for most of us, most of the time, "ordinary mind" is not so ordinary. "Ordinary mind" does not refer to our brain's lower, unconscious, habitual, automatic decision-making process. It refers to the CEO of the company, the attentive, (more) fully engaged focus of our (more) fully aware mind.

With apologies to Einstein, I would assert that it's neurotic to do the same crippled thing over and over again and be surprised by getting the same bad results.

When you are under stress, stop and count to ten, put yourself in the other person's position, take a deep breath, develop some sort of novel attention, go for a walk. Writing about what bothers me is my meditation. It's hard to do in the heat of the moment. But the understanding that I will write about the crisis allows me to act more creatively during the crisis.

I tell my patients, "Do something new. At least it has a chance of being correct."

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