“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
― Albert Einstein
Whether we experience our life as a miracle or not depends on the way in which we attend to our lives. What we pay attention to determines what we perceive. Iain McGilchrist writes:
“Attention is not just receptive, but actively creative of the world we inhabit. How we attend makes all the difference to the world we experience. And nowadays, in the west, we usually attend in a rather unusual way: governed by the narrowly focused, target-driven left hemisphere of the brain”.
This ‘left mode’, as Dan Siegel refers to it, is narrow in its orientation and focuses on detail. It is a different attentional focus or style to the right mode which takes in the big picture exercising a broad mode of attention. Both modes are important, and are needed, but as a culture, we tend to cultivate the left hemisphere more, limiting our perception and possibilities.
McGilchrist further explains the two hemispheres and their functions:
“For reasons of survival we need one hemisphere (the left) to pay narrow attention to detail, to grab hold of things we need, while the other, the right, keeps an eye out for everything else. The result is that one hemisphere is good at utilising the world, the other better at understanding it”.
He elaborates on the different types of attention available to us and the creative power inherent in attention:
“Absent, present, detached, engaged, alienated, empathic, broad or narrow, sustained or piecemeal, attention has the power to alter whatever it meets. The play of attention can both create and destroy, but it never leaves its object unchanged. How you attend to something – or don’t attend to it – matters a very great deal”.
This means, as the saying goes, that we do not see things the way they are, but the way we are, through the filter of our mental models of beliefs and assumptions constructed from our past experience.
“Attention may sound a bit boring, but it isn’t at all. It is not just another ‘cognitive function’ – it is actually nothing less than the way in which we relate to the world”, writes McGilchrist. He continues: “Attention changes what kind of a thing comes into being for us: in that way it changes the world”.
The right hemisphere develops earlier than the left so in the first 2-3 it is the more dominant, at which point the left kicks in, and soon after begins to eclipse the right.
Rod Tweedy supports the idea of the creative capacity of attention: “The kind of attention we bring to bear on the world actually alters the nature of the world we attend to…This transformative or ‘world-changing’ aspect of attention can be seen in every form of relationship we encounter and experience – from parenting and teaching, to therapy, art, philosophy, science and political engagement. Adjusting our mode of attention can have far-reaching and profound effects – indeed, one might call this striking ability ‘the attention effect’, as remarkable a phenomenon in its way as the recognition in quantum mechanics of how the act of observation alters what is being observed”.
From this point of view, we do not merely ‘receive’ the world, but actively create, or co-create the world we experience, in the act of perception. What we attend to, and perhaps more importantly, how we attend to that thing determines the quality of our experience and so the quality of our lives.
The philosopher Jacob Needlman writes:
“The quality of man’s attention is the key to the meaning of our lives and the possible growth of our being…I am my attention. Everything else is given, is not mine”.
When we change the way we see, the things we see change. Given that we each create our worlds in each moment of perception, we have the power to create a different, less fractured and alienated world based on how we attend. Rod Tweedy writes:
“In a world that has become increasingly dominated by one particular mode of attention, one rooted in and promoted by the left hemisphere of the brain, consciously altering our habitual mode of attention to one based on a more integrated, empathic, relational and embodied sense of relationship can have dramatic, perhaps even revolutionary, consequences”.