Attention, self-mastery and freedom

You are part of a bustling, living world; but you have special attention skills.  Photo by Samuel Austin on Unsplash

There will always be multiple people and events trying to get your attention.  That seems to be the nature of life.  Your existence will appear, to you, to be full of different stimuli asking you to react and respond.


However, all these different stimuli only appear to be asking you to respond, because of your interpretation of them.  They don’t actually, in themselves, demand a response.

To prove this to yourself, think of another human being, a stranger, on the other side of the world, currently experiencing a problem.  Do you spend all your waking hours worrying about that person’s problem?  Probably not.  Now consider a team of ants building a home near where you live.  Do you spend all your time agonising about whether those ants will succeed?  Again, probably not.

The point is that all of these beings have their own concerns and activities, but they are empty of reality unless and until you choose to attend to them.  If you choose to focus on the stranger, or on the ants, then that is up to you.  Currently, your attention is given only to certain things, and not to others.


Every moment of your life, there is a decision to be made.  You have a choice as to what you attend to.

We tend to make our decision about what to attend to on one of the following bases:

  • Habit – we keep attending to what we are used to attending to
  • Self-interest – we turn our attention to what we think will make us a gain, or avoid a loss to us
  • Attraction – we turn our attention to something beguiling, like a film with an engaging story, or a person or object that attracts us
This is not surprising – we are animals, and animals have been channeled by evolution into the three ruts of habit, end-gaining, and attraction.  Like other animals, we have an inborn tendency to follow routines, chase food, avoid danger, and pursue what instinctively attracts us.


However, our animal nature is not very efficient at coping with multiple conflicting stimuli.  Most films and other dramas are based on this premise.  A person with a strong routine falls in love with an incompatible person, and the relationship threatens their stability.  A couple are enjoying an ideal environment, when a potential loss threatens to take away everything they have.

The plots are endless, but they all demonstrate what happens when our usual selfish, animal triangle of habit, self-interest and attraction is threatened.  We watch films and books in fascination, because they allow us to witness our potential disruption without having to suffer it directly.

But when it is not a film starring someone else – when life throws us complexity – we often crumble into confusion and defensiveness.  We panic, or get aggressive, or cry, or hide away.


At those times, we have to use our brains if we want to be happy.

As a human, you have been given a highly-developed ability to choose what you focus on in the moment.

Remember those three animal tendencies: habit, self-interest, and attraction?  Well, if you want to train yourself to be happy, then one way do do that, is to learn to master your own response to each of those three things.  Here are three rules that may help.

  1. Learn to make routines that work for you, but also learn to be patient when they are disrupted.
  2. Learn to weaken your self-interest.  This frees you from most selfish dilemmas, and the pain they bring.
  3. Learn to walk away from what attracts you.  This frees you from the bonds of attraction.

This is the basis for a single-pointed focus in meditation.  The idea is that, through careful application of routine, you can make space in your life that is free of external interference, so that you can concentrate on learning to master your animal mind.

While you are meditating, your job is to weaken your own self-interest by becoming compassionate towards others.  In this way, you can be less oppressed by your own selfishness, and, in time, become free.

A second job you have, when you are meditating, is to weaken your focus on what attracts (and distracts) you.  This makes you more patient, and more universally appreciative, since you are not being narrowly prejudicial, and therefore selective, in your responses.

Overall, meditation makes your world wider, since you are not locked in by animal self-interest, nor drawn this way and that by animal attraction.  You can walk where you want.



Your life will always be full of competing stimuli.

As animals, we tend to respond to those stimuli using three stereotypical behaviours: habit, self-interest, and attraction.

At difficult times, we need to learn to gain mastery over our routines, our self-interest, and our attractions.

Meditation can help enormously, as it is, in itself, training in good routines, whereby we can weaken self-interest, and weaken the bonds of attraction.

We can then be better prepared.  When difficult times come, we can achieve a more peaceful outlook, and freedom of mind.