“My experience is what I agree to attend to”, observed the American philosopher and psychologist, William James in 1890. But what James —who was exploring the nature of conscious awareness — noted, is not quite right. What we choose to pay attention to and consume certainly shapes our minds, along with the implication that what we do not pay attention to makes less of an impression on us — because we simply haven’t attended to it! However, this is not the full picture. For, human experience is not just governed by conscious attention acting as a gatekeeper. There is much more going on behind the scenes. We must not forget the unattended.
Ignore at your peril
Just because you decide to not focus on something, it does not mean that what you ignore automatically stops impacting your experience. Some things — like limiting your exposure to mainstream media — may do, but other things may not. If your experience was exclusively limited to what you consciously attended to, life would be a whole lot simpler. But, that’s just wishful thinking.
If you choose to ignore the tiger in your living room and sit down to eat the chocolate cake on the dining table, chances are that it is you that will soon be dinner. If you choose to ignore your toxic work environment and just get on with your job, chances are that your emotional and psychological wellbeing will be affected. Ignoring reality does not make it go away.
Then there is what is hidden. Just think about the various influences that operate outside of your conscious attention that have affected you from day 1. Influences that have shaped your deeper beliefs about the world and even how you relate to yourself. And, that perhaps continue to affect you through ongoing social and cultural forces. Operating outside of your conscious attention, they remain hidden. Yet, they can impact so much of how you experience the world. For, they govern even what you choose to focus your conscious attention on.
So, the real danger lies in what you ignore and what you do not notice. Some things are perhaps too confronting to deal with, so we ignore them — denial feels like an easier path. Other things, like our deeper beliefs, remain hidden because they are habitual ways of being. Ways of being whose implications you have not investigated. These too can be confronting if you do not like what you uncover!
Deepening conscious attention
Your experience is not just what you simply agree to attend to. It is governed by much more than immediate conscious attention. The mistake is to be duped into thinking that what grabs your attention on the surface is everything. Only by looking beneath the surface at what might be ignored and hidden do you empower yourself with choice.
Harsha is a 1:1 coach and independent thinker based in London. He empowers people to find more clarity, confidence and focus in their lives — to cut through the noise, in a world so full of it. Harsha’s new book, Machine Ego: Tragedy of the Modern Mind, is now available in paperback and Kindle through Amazon.