Notice What You are Noticing
by Sky Nelson
[Please see here for an Intro about Sky Nelson - ramesam.]
“You” evolve out of the experiences you have
“Attention”, or “Noticing”, is something that seems to come from inside of us. When we “pay attention”, we “send” our focus to our environment. Just as when we pay money we get a product, when we pay attention we get information. Without paying attention, we can’t receive information.
To see what I mean, try this. Sit quietly with your eyes open. Soften your gaze. Let your mind wander to your plans for tomorrow. Although your eyes are receiving light from the objects around you, you aren’t paying attention to them. Since you are not taking in that information, you may not even be aware of some of the things right next to you.
Now, keeping your eyes unfocused, notice something in your peripheral vision. You are taking in information about what you see. After having paid attention, you can describe what is around you. Before that, even though the same light was entering your eyes, you were not aware of your surroundings. Without paying attention, you cannot gain information.
Let’s say the amount of attention you pay is equal to the amount of information you learn or gain. This is handy because information is easy to describe in physics.
If you gain information, “entropy” goes down. Although the entropy (or “disorder”) of the whole universe always goes up, this is not true for each individual thing. For instance, when you eat, even though a lot of food is destroyed, your body becomes more ordered as you grow. The world as a whole becomes more disorganized overall, but a tiny little slice of it called you becomes more organized. The world is full of pools of relative order and disorder, shifting and moving like the surface of the ocean, and attention is part of what drives that “shifting”.
Try looking at a bookshelf with focused attention. As you observe it, you learn definite facts about the bookshelf (e.g. all the books are fantasy novels), and remove other possibilities that can no longer be true (e.g. there are no books about physics). By paying attention, you have clarified the actual titles and removed other possible titles. You have created a small amount of order by applying your attention. Attention is paid, information is gained, and disorder goes down.
This may seem abstract, but it can be very practical.
Information Changes You
Awareness is necessary to gain information. But how does the information affect you? Information has to have an impact on you, or it is not information! According to a leading theory by Giulio Tononi, “effective information” is the relative increase in information that comes from your measurement. A key feature of a conscious being is the effective information that is generated with each interaction. When you receive information, you change in a measurable way. You literally become a different person with each bit of information you take in because you integrate it into who you are.
Tononi says “Information that is not integrated is not associated with experience, and thus does not really exist as such.” Information only has existence in relation to a “conscious observer who exploits it to achieve certain (goals).” Without you, the world around you does not evolve. Without the world, you do not evolve.
Integration can be thought of as the blending and balancing of new information with the information that, until this moment, you called “you”. As you integrate new information, you assume a new concept of yourself.
The process of “I”-dentification
Who is that mysterious yet familiar person called “I”? You know it intuitively from your direct experience. It is you, your ability to observe, choose, and experience the world.
We might say that “you” are the information that you “I”-dentify with.
Take the recent campfire I had with my daughter. It was a cold night, with a warm fire, and the sticky-sweet taste of burnt marshmallows. All of this information was taken in by her senses.
Let’s say she didn’t like the cold air of the night. She may have subconsciously thought “I am someone who doesn’t like being outdoors at night.”
But when she took in the warm fire and friendly people she may have thought, “I am someone who likes being around a warm campfire with my friends and family.” Then she tasted the sticky marshmallow, and identified with that experience by thinking “I love roasting marshmallows!” Her identity was changed by her experiences.
“I”-dentification with experience is what creates the “I”.
You are what your mind eats. In other words, every piece of information you receive changes your sense of who you are. Where you put your attention determines who you become. Since attention can be quantified, we might say that the more you pay attention the faster you evolve.
Use Your Attention Effectively
To notice the quantity and quality of your own attention, try these steps:
1) Sit quietly. Allow the first thoughts to come and go. Begin to notice the things around you.
2) Notice your attention. Pick something to notice. What is it like to “see” that thing? What is it like to gain information about that thing? Can you imagine looking at it and not learning something about it? Is it possible to turn off your attention?
3) Think about how you are changed by the things you pay attention to. Notice small changes. If you read the title of a book off a shelf, it may remind you of a book you read in high school. It has an effect on your thinking and maybe your emotions. It may inspire you to read the book, or remind you that you are in the middle of a book you are enjoying. The information you gain can actually cause you to take some kind of action, so it has changed you.
4) Now, pay attention to your attention. Instead of sending your attention outward, send your attention back to itself. Notice yourself noticing. This is very powerful. You may notice your body relax, and your spine spontaneously straighten on its own. By training the power of your attention back on itself, you gain information about your awareness itself. This induces a natural settling and sense of well-being.
As you go through your day today, notice where your attention goes, and how you change as a result of the information you gather. How have you identified with your experiences? Since your attention is busy every waking moment of the day, make conscious decisions about what experiences you turn your attention to. Those experiences influence who you become.