Deep Thought: Fighting the First Attention

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Deep Thought: Fighting the First Attention

A seer thinking deeply, with  a towel on his head
I am reporting...on the events that unfold in my life as a direct result of having adopted an alien set of interrelated ideas and procedures. In other words, the belief system I wanted to study swallowed me...

– Carlos Castaneda, The Eagle's Gift, 1981

You may or may not have heard of Carlos Castaneda. He had a PhD in Anthropology (really!) from UCLA. He came from South America. More than that, it is not safe to say about him. Angry anthropologists like Professor Marvin Harris claimed that this was because Carlos Castaneda was a big fat liar.

Carlos Castaneda said it was because he had succeeded in 'erasing personal history', as his mentor had taught him. His mentor wasn't his dissertation supervisor. His mentor in this case was the legendary Yaqui sorcerer Don Juan Matus. And no, you can't find out much about him, either. He's as elusive as Elijah. So either he was another big fat liar – or something very mysterious was going on.

I personally find the Castaneda oeuvre highly entertaining. I am untroubled by such questions as, 'On such-and-such a date, was Carlos in the desert, as he claims, doing very spooky things, or was he sitting in the library in Los Angeles, as his detractors aver?' Or, 'Did Don Gennaro really fly his sombrero like a kite?' These questions are mere bagatelles compared to the awesome insights to be gleaned by reading the books. In fact, you get more out of them if you forced yourself to poise your consciousness on the knife edge between skepticism and credulity. Try it: it's like rubbing your tummy and patting your head.

That's also what I said about playing the organ, before I learned how to do it. Now, it's just a matter of keeping all four limbs moving at the same time. You go ride that bicycle: I prefer a good, rousing hymn for exercise.

One of my favourite teachings of Don Juan concerns the question of the 'first attention' and the 'second attention'. According to Don Juan, a lot of reality is hidden beneath the surface, and some of it is disturbing to our sensibilities. (Don't believe me? Go watch The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix. Seen it? Watch it again.) When our minds can't cope, we make up explanations that fit and make us more comfortable. This explanation belongs to what Don Juan calls the 'first attention'. That sorcerer over there is talking to an alien entity? Block it out. The first attention says that's just a drunken old man. Ignore him, or call the cops.

The trick, according to Don Juan, is to get beyond the first attention – to get it to shut up for once – and see through to the second attention, which is where the insights are.

What is really interesting is that Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian animal behaviourist, discovered the first attention in animals, too. He noticed that a dog, having mistaken a nail in the wall for an insect (admit it, you've done it, too), will get embarrassed and pretend he was looking at something else. My cats do this sort of thing all the time. If they leap, and miss the table, they'll right themselves, shake it off, and meander nonchalantly away, in total denial.

I think Lorenz knew about the first attention in scientists, too.

It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.

Or, as the apostle Paul said, 'We know in part, and we prophesy in part.'

Or, as my biology lab instructor, the brilliantly-named Mr Leaf, explained, 'Science is a black box. Yes, you may open the one you've been playing with all morning. But remember: in reality, you never get to open the black box.' Paul might have disagreed: he said, 'But when that which is perfect is come, that which is in part is done away.'

You pays your money and you takes your choice, but I would like to suggest trying to become more aware of the first attention and its role in your life. I would also like to suggest that you try to get it to shut up. Spend a few minutes each day, more if possible, trying to shut out the noise and reach a still point. This is particularly important to do at this time of the year, with seasonal change upon us. Whether you're going through fall or spring, you're sure to feel the shifting in your brain, and the first attention will be working overtime trying to make sense of it all. Try to reach some peace, if only for a moment or two.


  • If you like baths, take one. With or without bubbles, or candles, or rubber ducks. Do this alone, however: no cats, kids, or significant others allowed. Close your eyes. Become aware of the water on your skin. Blot out everything else.
  • Listen to music that is quiet, but of a type not irritating to you. (Your values may vary.) If the song has words, learn them and sing them in your head. If it doesn't, banish words from your mind for the duration of the song. Repeat as needed.
  • Go wash the dishes. With lots of sudsy water. By yourself. Don't think about finishing the dishes. Don't think about anything else. Just feel each dish. Luxuriate in the suds. Concentrate on removing every speck, drop, and ketchup blob while letting your mind go totally blank.
  • Go watch the birds eat. Or the squirrels play. Or sheep or cows on a hill. Stop critiquing them. (They're doing fine.) Stop thinking about what they're 'good for'. (They don't have to be 'good for' anything.) Stop telling yourself a story about those animals. Stop putting yourself in the picture at all. Just watch them. Let them be in your eyes, your ears, and your mind. Realise your breathing has slowed, and you haven't thought about your own existence, your own wants, and your anxieties for maybe a whole minute.

Take that, first attention. Carlos would be proud of you.

Extra credit song.

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