Your attention, please

Here’s a strange fact: I can remember every flu I’ve had in my adult life (where “flu” means I was in bed with a fever).

Partly, this is because I can count the number of flus I’ve had on one hand and partly it’s because I’ve always found fever dreams to be interesting. Who needs LSD when you can catch a flu and hallucinate for free? In one particularly memorable flu I had, I remember visualising geometrical shapes for hours and hours. It was like my own personal Pink Floyd lightshow. But it went on so long that it got annoying and I wished I could make it stop. Some years later, I learned how to make fever dreams stop. I’ll tell the story of that shortly.

Down here in Australia, we have been slowly catching up to the rest of the world in covid infections after our initial covid-zero “victory”. I’d say about half of my acquaintances have now had the virus. I know this because everybody who gets the virus loves to tell others about it. Last week an acquaintance of mine was relating their experience. They were explaining how unusual covid was because they had been hallucinating geometric shapes while in bed with a fever, something that had never happened to them before. Based on this fact, they concluded that the sars-cov-2 virus must really have been manufactured in a lab in Wuhan because it “felt unnatural”.

The story resonated with me because their experience of hallucinating geometric shapes sounded identical to the flu I’d had many years ago. Their conclusion about the origins of the virus was also invalid. Specifically, it is based on an error of reasoning sometimes called attentional bias where a person gives undue weight to something just because they are paying attention to it. Learning how to direct your attention is an important skill, especially in the modern world where literally all the institutions in society are fighting to get your attention. It was through directed attention that I was able to make my own fever dreams stop when I had a flu a few years ago.

At the time, I had been working through the exercises in the book “Concentration” by Mouni Sadhu. Sadhu, whose real name was Mieczyslaw Demetriusz Sudowski, was born in Poland, spent WW2 as a prisoner of war and afterwards travelled to India where he undertook Vedanta study in an ashram. He later migrated to Australia where he lived in my home town of Melbourne working a day job as an engineer while practising esoteric spirituality on the side; surely a lonely practice among the rampant bourgeois materialism of the post war years in Australia.

The book “Concentration” is about achieving mastery of your mind. It’s light on theory and heavy on practical work. The core exercise of the book is extremely simple. You take out a pin and hold it in front of your face at a comfortable distance. You must focus your sight on the head of the pin, seeing it as clearly as possible. That’s the easy part. The hard part is that you cannot allow a single other thought to enter your mind while you are staring at the pin. If ones does, you must restart the exercise. You go through this process trying to focus on the pin without interruption from other thoughts. First you aim for 15 seconds of uninterrupted concentration, then 30 seconds, then one minute and then two minutes.

Two minutes doesn’t sound like much but it takes months of daily practice to get there. In the process you learn about the contents of your mind and specifically that you have a whole stream of noise running through it. Some of the noise comes from external sources like television, radio, internet and some from internal sources. Maybe you were listening to a catchy pop song in the morning. The melody will suddenly pop into your head while you’re staring at the pin and you have to start the exercise again. Maybe you’ll start thinking about what you need to buy at the supermarket later or that thing you have planned on the weekend. You have to start again.  Getting to two minutes of uninterrupted concentration is a significant achievement.

I had just reached that goal and had moved on to the next exercise in the book when I came down with the flu. As I was lying in bed with a fever, the usual fever dreams began. I had the idea of trying to apply the concentration method I had learned to make the fever dream go away. I set out to deliberately change the focus of my concentration away from the fever dreams and onto an empty black space. Voila! It worked first time. I was able to turn my mind away from the fever dreams just like I had learned to turn my mind away from random thoughts and focus on the pin. As soon as my concentration slipped, the fever dreams returned.

The ability to do this is of philosophical relevance. The Epicurean philosopher, Lucretius, made the argument a couple of millennia ago that the fact that disease affected the mind was evidence that the mind would expire at death just like the body.

“Since the mind is thus invaded by the contagion of disease, you must acknowledge that it is destructible.”

Lucretius assumed that fever dreams are inevitable. There’s nothing to be done about them except wait until they pass much like the physical disease itself. But if you can control fever dreams and stop your mind being “invaded” by them, then his argument falls apart. This doesn’t prove that the mind exists after death, but it does show that there is a “substance” outside of the mind that can govern the focus of the mind and force it to concentrate on a pin or not concentrate on fever dreams. This substance is the Will.

In the 1800s, exercises that developed the will became very popular in Europe following the publication of Schopenhauer’s “World as Will and Representation”. Many of these exercises involved the deliberate use of the senses. For example, you might set out to notice everything that is coloured red in your neighbourhood. You might go for a walk and deliberately try to smell all the different smells that are present. You might sit down and try to hear every sound including things far off in the distance. These exercises are very similar to Mouni Sadhu’s pin concentration exercise and part of the reason why Europeans became interested in the Veda and other eastern philosophies is precisely because they realised that those philosophies had already discovered the will, something that was new to Europe (Schopenhauer was also influenced by the Eastern philosophies).

Note that the ability to concentrate is implied in the scientific method. This was given the name “will to knowledge” in the 1800s because you were using your will in order to learn something. Western science has been primarily concerned with learning something about the material world while Eastern science (like the Veda) was far more concerned with learning something about the spiritual. This all ties in with a longstanding bias against the material world which also exists in the western tradition (Plato especially). The reason philosophers and sages didn’t turn their attention to the material world wasn’t because they couldn’t but because the material world was considered the “lowest” sphere of existence and you wouldn’t waste your time on it.

The upshot of all these will and attention exercises is that you learn to be highly sceptical of things you have not paid active attention to. As you have not paid active attention to most things in the world, you learn to become sceptical of pretty much everything. This is the basis of true science and is captured in Feynman’s first rule of science: thou shalt not fool thyself. The easiest way to fool yourself is to unquestioningly believe something you have not paid active attention to.

This brings us back to my acquaintance and his covid fever dreams. Most people have never actively paid attention to colds and flus because colds and flu are an everyday part of life and we are taught from a young age not to worry about them i.e. not to pay attention to them. You go to bed for a few days and then get on with your life. In modern times, you might not even go to bed. You’ll pop some pills to keep you going and plow through the illness. Prior to 2020, nobody cared about your respiratory infection and if you tried to tell them about it they wouldn’t have wanted to know.

What happens when we create a new name for a respiratory infection and then overturn all the existing rules of society over it? One of the things that happens is that everybody starts paying attention. Those who have done will/attention exercises know what’s that like. You go out and decide to look for everything red in your neighbourhood. Suddenly, red things seem to be everywhere and you’re amazed by all the red things you never noticed before. It feels “new”. But the red things were always there. The only thing that changed was your mental state. So it is with covid.

Of course, the whole point of the giant propaganda machine we have created in the modern world is to direct your attention. When you set out to direct your own attention, such as by staring at a pin, you realise how many of the random thoughts running through your mind are somebody else’s thoughts and that it was somebody else’s will which put them there.

The self-improvement ethic (which later became known by the less useful name of self-help) of the 1800s did have this going for it: it was about learning to direct your own attention and use your own will. Most people at that time were trying to break through the propaganda of the Church but our modern propaganda machine is far more pervasive than the Church could ever have dreamed. Now more than ever, winning back control of your attention and your will is a valuable thing to do.

22 thoughts on “Your attention, please”

  1. G’day mate,
    a bit envious of your fever dreams. Never had any myself. Flu means a lot of coughing. Rather less interesting.
    With humans being a deeply social animal I wonder if our attention has ever been our own except in the case of some antisocial weirdos which would never be more than a small fraction of the population.

  2. Roland – For me it seems to be all or nothing. I’ll go years without so much as a sniffle and then get knocked out for a week. I had a conversation with a doctor acquaintance of mine where I was talking about the fevers I would get and he asked why I didn’t just take panadol to break the fever. I told him it’s because I figure that the body is causing the fever and wouldn’t it be better to give the body optimal conditions to fight the disease. He looked at me like I had two heads. I wonder how many people have never had a fever cos they always take something to break it.

    Interesting point about the social animal thing. I would have thought the norm for most of history would have been less social than today simply because the social groups were so much smaller eg. hunter gather tribes, farming communities.

  3. Simon – your post is timely! In recent days, maybe thanks to the polar blast you would’ve felt first, a flu-like epidemic has flared here in Sydney. My partner succumbed last week & tested +ve for Covid. For me, having been privy to a blow-by-blow account :), it’s appeared identical to flu. To hear my partner tell it, the headache + neck pain has felt different, possibly due to employer-mandated vax x2. Soon after, my body began to flirt w/ something viral – a few coughs & sniffles – & my partner proposed I take a RAT. Um, thanks but no. Take a dubious test because the state now dictates how I care for my health? Not going to give the thought form energy. And what you say re paying attention – that’s the basis for Covid hysteria, a colossal fever dream. Feeling fine now (unlike my partner); &, funnily enough, of the folk I know who’ve tested +ve, no one unvaxxed has been nearly as sick (if at all) as the vaxxed, some of whom get angry or argue if I mention this. Or they say it’s different for everyone, there’s no logic to it, & shrug it off, opting for mystery. But it seems to me that once someone’s vaxxed, their attention is captured, whether they wanted their shots or not. The vax potentially sets off an unfamiliar bodily process, forcing the subject to notice & maybe, through fear, to seek ‘expert’ input.

  4. Interesting, in my own personal experience it seems our minds/bodies can switch us into a hyper focused concentration state if the stakes/interest are high enough until it almost becomes transcendental. I think Junger talked about this in terms of his experience of war, which is probably the highest stakes thing we can do. I think the Illiad taps into this as well.

    This may sound silly, but playing competitive sport has always got me to an approximation of this state, and a lot of professional athletes talk about this in that one of the best things about what they are do is that everything else in the world fades into obscurity when they are playing. Nothing gets you focused like opening the batting in cricket facing a lighting quick bowler steaming in from a mile away, or standing over a 4 foot putt to win the Saturday golf tournament. The higher movement sports such as basketball and AFL/Soccer/Rugby are different again in that it is so fast that there are moments and periods where things just seem to happen by instinct.

    I’ve seen this done too when you are engaged in actual hands on learning, in which your mind knows that you are learning something important and interesting, and your body is involved too. I teach budding and grafting skills to the local high school kids and for those interested the concentration on their faces when they start having a go is a joy to watch.

  5. Shane – cultural expectations play a big role. I think it’s actually quite similar to the subjective experience of drugs. Take weed, for example. There are all kinds of cultural stereotypes around it and people act those out when high eg. the pacifist, lazy stereotypes. But I believe the Romans saw weed as a stimulant and some cultures even gave it to warriors before battle. Same drug; very different cultural script. Same principle applies to covid. The Victorian government is still advertising trying to get people to stop calling 000 or going to hospital when they have mild covid symptoms. But that comes after telling people for 2 years that they were gonna die so what do they expect?

    Skip – that’s a good point. I’ve also had the “in the zone” state doing repetitive manual labour and also sports. I think there was a similar principle behind the physical practices of yoga. I vaguely recall that there were some schools of christian thought where you “find God through work” that used similar ideas.

  6. Interesting story. I don’t remember having fever dreams during a flu, but I take flus as cleansing experiences, for both the mind and the body. Last month, I had a bad flu (not covid, at least according to the tests). Four days flat in bed. I took no medicines (a few aspirins, I admit). Then I emerged much better than before. I used to have a nasty cough that wouldn’t go away, now it is gone — I think an effect of the flu. I think viruses are not our enemies. Our body occasionally admits them as an occasion to do a deep cleansing of everything. Or so it seems to me

  7. Ugo – I just did a quick search online and apparently only about 10% of people have fever dreams and nobody really knows what causes them. I assumed they were more common. I seem to get them every time I have a fever.

    I agree about viruses in general. Given that microbiologists have found viruses everywhere on earth, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to focus on the virus alone as the cause of illness. The state of the body and mind must be at least as important.

  8. Hi Simon,

    I’ve heard it said elsewhere that the maxim: thou shalt not fool thyself, can be defeated if one’s pay relies upon being so fooled. 🙂

    Hmm, I’m of the opinion that to learn to think our own thoughts is one of the great challenges we are all faced with. As a habit, it is not actively encouraged. The sheer volume of rote learning taught in the education system is perhaps evidence of that desired outcome. But then, on the other hand providing no structure – such as how the English language is taught these days – is equally problematic. I have heard tales that hand writing as a skill is overlooked and not drilled, and even basic structure is ignored (for example: The first word in a sentence begins with a capital letter, let alone spelling skills). All very strange indeed.

    It can be quite challenging for people to simply look.

    One aspect of this problem could be stated as thus: What if the dream does not deliver the promised benefits? Then what can become a very uncomfortable thought for many people.

    Your skills are very necessary: Ghandara was an ear worm!

    Cheers

    Chris

  9. I went without food for several weeks a while ago. Involuntarily. After a while, I would switch off the light and lie in bed for hours, unable to sleep, watching a seemingly endless black-and-white film starring noone in particular.

    And yes, I think the closest many these days will get to a religious experience is monotonous, productive work – or a fever?

  10. Chris – That works the other way too. The small business owners that you deal with are paid only if they are not fooled and if they fool themselves too much they go out of business. From this we can extrapolate that a lot of “experts'” pay relies on them being fooled. Hence the results of the last two years.

    Michael – there’s a lot to be said for monotonous, productive work. In my experience, it is far preferable to work which is arbitrary and unproductive, such as many salary class jobs these days. A return to that kind of work would see a significant improvement in mental health, I’d guess.

  11. I have not lived in a tribal community, but I grew up in a small farming village in the backwaters of Bavaria and it seems to me that life there was very social compared to the way we live today. For better or for worse.
    We replaced real socialising with social media. So I think one could make the argument that we live in highly unsocial times. Our society may be big, but it is lacking humanity.

    About focused attention, there’s two things i can highly recommend:
    1) performing music on stage
    2) skydiving
    in both cases not being focused leads to bad outcomes.

    @Ugo I agree that flu can be the body’s way of telling you to take it easy for a couple of days. I always come out of them feeling better than before. Funny enough occasionally I seem to get a bout of euphoria and a rush of energy just before it hits.

  12. Roland – that’s a good point. Social media is very anti-social in many respects. Seems like another quantity over quality trade off which defines the modern world.

  13. Chris, there’s one child in my family who is in the age bracket that got taught writing under the improved/harmonised EU rules a few years ago.
    As those stated that children could write words the way the heard them, each developed their own private writing language.
    Now that those children advance in education, they are allocated special re-training, the rules having been hurriedly scrapped.

    (I don’t think Bavaria ever followed those rulings; or did it, Roland?)

  14. Michael – meanwhile in China you have to memorise several thousand ideograms just to read the newspaper.

  15. Hi Michael / Simon,

    The handwriting thing is pretty weird because our society still expects its citizens to fill out paper based forms.

    Interestingly I know a very educated family, and they discovered to their dismay during the home schooling era due to you-know-what, that their kids handwriting skills were not great.

    Exactly! Years ago when I first began working as an adult, my boss sat me down – he was very grumpy, but otherwise OK – and told me firmly that if I was going to write a letter or other form of written communication, the intention is to convey information to another person. Hmm, a private written language certainly is an interesting concept, but can it convey information from one person to another (other than WTF is this? 🙂 ) using a standard and generally accepted form and mode? I have strong reservations in that regard.

    Cheers

    Chris

  16. Chris – the question of whether there is a private language is one that has been discussed by philosophers down through the years, most famously perhaps by Wittgenstein – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Private_language_argument

    Still, he wasn’t talking about spelling. Having different spelling per person is just about the dumbest idea I’ve heard. If this is the kind of stuff the EU is coming up with, Brexit makes a whole lot more sense to me.

  17. Hi Simon,

    He is a slippery one for sure. And it may be possible that the philosopher is using the words ‘private language’ – which it should be noted have public meanings in and of themselves, to describe inner experiences?

    My perspective (and I’d be curious as to your perspective) in the matter is that a private language is incomprehensible to other people, so it is a moot point. It’s kind of like having access to some arcane knowledge or experience, which is impossible to convey to any other person using the commonly agreed upon methods of communication. The response: ‘so what?’, comes to mind! 😉

    Yeah, it is pretty dumb isn’t it? Unless of course having a population which has difficulties communicating ideas is the desired goal – then it makes a bunch of sense. But, I tend to believe that the situation evolved from kooky ideals which were confused for good ideas. Always possible.

    Cheers

    Chris

  18. @Michael
    “Schreiben nach Gehör” (Writing by hearing) is one of the worst educational trends I have ever encountered. Fortunately, I only know it from frustrated teachers, not by being exposed to it by myself. As far as I know, they pretty quickly came to the conclusion that this is a stupid idea.

    Regarding the Bavarian accent, I once had a funny encounter with a conductor in a train in Bavaria. He came to me and told me something important based on how he said it, but I could not understand a word due to him talking the Bavarian accent. He had to repeat his statement three times until I could deduct that he wanted to say that the train will be separated at the next train stop and I had to make sure to be in the correct part of the train to reach my destination. So while I am not againt local accents, there should at least be the possibility to also talk in the language of the majority.

  19. Chris – well, if it’s not possible to have a private language then it’s not possible to have private “mental states”. That means all your mental states are the same as what anybody else has. That seems both right and wrong at the same time :).

  20. Hi Simon,

    Ook! Thus proving communication is difficult… I’m not sure that my thoughts went that far. What I was sort of trying to communicate was that it is very difficult in the first place to know another persons internal workings / mind (at least I find it to be so), so my hypothesis was that if we can’t peer under the hood of another person or even ourselves and make a comparison, how do we know whether the mental states are private or otherwise – and here the English language utterly fails me, because what does that even mean really, when I use those words? My brain now hurts.

    Dude, I’m not trying to score points or make clever arguments. Philosophy just ain’t my bag, but I’m interested as to the journey your words are taking us all upon and am happy to learn.

    Cheers

    Chris

  21. Chris – well, yeah. We have enough trouble communicating with public language without worrying about a private one. Which is part of the reason letting children spell words however they want is so dumb.

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