Depending on my mood, the same piece of art might enthrall or bore me; I can become immersed in a sunset, or completely fail to notice it; I can lose myself dancing at a concert, or stand there wondering how long until I can go home.
Why does beauty sometimes captivate us, and other times leave us unmoved? And is it something we can control?
For me, the key is shifting to what Marion Milner calls “wide attention”, and it’s a learnable skill. It feels like unclenching a muscle in my brain.
Here’s a recent example from my notes1:
Last night, minutes after I went to bed, it began to rain—one of those delightful summer thrashings that break the heat. Normally the rain would lull me to sleep, but I kept turning over and staring out the window some vague angsty longing. I decided to put on a robe, pour a glass of scotch, and sit on my deck.
This is a ritual of mine—sitting on the deck late at night, watching the weather, small glass of liquor in hand. But I still felt that vague longing, like I wasn’t enjoying it properly. I had gathered all the necessary ingredients, but still felt like I wasn’t truly hearing the rain, like I wasn’t poetic or artistic or sensitive enough to really enjoy the storm, the way it was meant to be enjoyed, the way a more refined person might enjoy it.
But after a few minutes of restlessness, I managed to unclench that muscle—a mental movement I’ve been practicing for years—and everything clicked into place.
Suddenly I wasn’t just listening to the rain, I was consumed by it. The distant thunder, the rustle of tree branches, the thousands of tiny thwacks on the roof over my head—all of it passed through me, lifting me up in the process. The rapture lasted for about an hour. It was, in every sense, soul-quenching.
To give a concrete example of the shift in consciousness: while I watched the swaying branches of a tree cast in silhouette by a streetlight, foreground and background suddenly flipped. The branches merged into the night sky, and the points of light leaking through the leaves became a thousand dancing stars. The illusion held for several minutes, and I sat there transfixed.
I’ve spent hundreds of hours staring at this tree (it’s been my meditation buddy for well over a year), but out of nowhere, a brand new way of seeing it emerged, more beautiful than I could have imagined. Where had this been before?
At some point my reverie broke—I realized how ridiculous I must look, holding my little glass of scotch, wearing nothing but a bathrobe and a grin. That sudden self-consciousness broke through what I can safely call one of the happiest hours of my life2.
The experience left me wondering: how can I have more of that?
I can’t remember the first place I heard the spotlight/floodlight metaphor for different modes of attention. Most likely it was this lecture from Alan Watts, my spiritual gateway drug.
We have two kinds of consciousness. One I will call the “spotlight” and the other the “floodlight”. The spotlight is what we call “conscious attention”, and that is trained into us from childhood as the most valuable form of consciousness…
People who, by various methods, become fully aware of their floodlight consciousness, have what is called a mystical experience…what the Buddhists call bodhi, or awakening, and the Hindus call moksha, liberation.
—Alan Watts, Myth of Myself
I later came across the same concept in Colin Wilson’s Access to Inner Worlds:
More than any other animal, we have the power to focus upon particulars; we possess a kind of mental microscope which enables us to narrow down our attention to a single problem. A microscope can make a flea look as big as a horse. It can also turn a minor annoyance into a major catastrophe…
Then some crisis—or moment of delighted anticipation—reminds us that we ought to be wearing…long-distance glasses. And the moment we put them on, we experience a revelation. Everything becomes clear and real. All petty anxieties drop from our shoulders. We feel like laughing aloud. Suddenly, it becomes obvious that all the miseries and anxieties were a stupid mistake, due to the wrong glasses. There is a feeling of relaxation and happiness that seems to express itself in the words: ‘Of course!’
—Colin Wilson, Access to Inner Worlds
But decades before Wilson and Watts3—and with far more sobriety and rigor—Marion Milner described “two ways of looking”: narrow and wide attention.
Narrow attention. This first way of perceiving seemed to be the automatic one, the kind of attention which my mind gave to everyday affairs when it was left to itself. The psychology books seemed to agree in this. They said that you attend automatically to whatever interests you…it selects what serves as its immediate interests and ignores the rest. As far as I could see it was a “questing beast,” keeping its nose close down to the trail, running this way and that upon the scent, but blind to the wider surroundings. It saw items according to whether they served its purposes, saw them as a means to its own ends, not interested in them at all for their own sake. This attitude was probably essential for practical life…But since it saw everything in relation to something else, as a means to some end, contentment was always in the future.
Wide attention. The second way of perceiving seemed to occur when the questing purposes were held in leash. Then, since one wanted nothing, there was no need to select one item to look at rather than another, so it became possible to look at the whole at once. To attend to something and yet want nothing from it, these seemed to be the essentials of the second way of perceiving. I thought that in the ordinary way when we want nothing from any object or situation we ignore it. Or if we are forced to attend to something which does not offer us any means of furthering our desires, then sheer habit makes us attend in the narrow focus way, looking at separate details and being bored. But if by chance we should have discovered the knack of holding wide our attention, then the magic thing happens.
—Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own (emphasis mine)
This perfectly describes the shift in consciousness I experienced during the rainstorm. First I sat there pushing my narrow attention around, with a vague feeling that I was missing it, that I wasn’t enjoying the moment properly. It was only when I remembered to relax my attention, to stop searching, to “want nothing” (as Milner puts it) that I suddenly struck upon a state of deep immersion and contentedness.
Try a very simple experiment. Take a pencil and hold it in front of your eyes, a few feet away. Narrow your attention to the pencil itself, so you cease to be aware of the room. Then let your attention expand, so you become aware of the room as its background. Then narrow your attention again. Do this a dozen times. At the end of this time, you will begin to experience a curious mental glow, not unlike what happens if you exercise your muscles. Because in fact you are exercising a muscle of whose existence you are normally unaware.
—Colin Wilson, The Outsider
Moving from narrow to wide attention is a surprisingly difficult task for me.
I’m used to being able to direct my attention. I can make myself focus on a book or a lecture or whatever task is at hand. I can even narrow my attention to something mundane, like a mantra or the branches of a tree. Holding attention in one place can be hard, but I know how to swing the spotlight to a particular location.
But when I’m told to “make my attention wide”, my first instinct is to keep swinging the spotlight around, looking for this wide attention, as though it’s a thing the spotlight might focus on. I keep turning my attention back on itself, asking “was that it?” Occasionally I might find a gap in thought, a moment of absorption—and then I immediately focus my spotlight on that memory to examine it.
One helpful strategy I’ve found is to methodically scan my environment with spotlight attention. I might cycle between each of my senses (what do I see? hear? feel? smell?) or let my eyes wander from object to object. It’s not quite floodlight awareness, but preventing the spotlight from settling on any one thing keeps the aperture wider than normal.
Another fun exercise: I’ll focus my eyes on an object straight ahead, then without moving my eyes let my attention drift to something in the periphery. Then I’ll see if I can hold my attention on two different objects in the periphery; then add a third, and so on. I can usually get to around five objects before my attention starts flickering back and forth.
But Wilson’s pencil exercise is the best I’ve found, because it helps me really feel that mental muscle contract and expand. I don’t usually do it with a pencil, or even a visual object—I just focus my attention on something for a few seconds, then relax it for a few seconds4. Over time, I’ve distilled a sense for the resulting mental motion, and can sometimes induce that shift intuitively, without thinking about attention.
More and more—with the help of Wilson’s pencil trick, Milner’s observations, and my own invented exercises—I’m able to feel the aperture of attention as though it were another muscle. I’m steadily getting better at it too. I feel like a skinny teenager who’s just discovered he can lift weights and get stronger.
Several things happen when I relax my mental sphincter and enter wide attention:
An increased absorption in raw sensation
A lessening of discursive thought
An equanimous lack of worry and desire
A subdued sense of self
All of these are taught as explicit goals in meditation practice. I’ve seen each one taught as the initial goal, from which the others will follow. But for me, wide attention is the thing to shoot for5, the cause that sits downstream from these effects.
In truth, they all seem to be interrelated, and any one of them can trigger the mental motion that engenders the others.
Absorption in sensation (something we’ve discussed before) is one of the more noticeable and pleasant aspects. It’s what allows me to enter into a deep enjoyment of whatever’s happening, whether that’s a rainstorm or music or a conversation. It seems to come from a smearing of experience in both time and space, in the sense described by QRI. Instead of focusing on the violins and the melody being played this very second, I can hear the entire orchestra at once, and how the notes I’m hearing “now” relate to the piece as a whole6.
I had read…that the test of a good picture was that all parts should be related to the whole and essential to the whole…I remembered to try out my newfound gesture of deliberately holding my attention wide…when looking at a Cézanne painting. Gradually my mind settled down to complete absorption, oblivious to all but the harmonies of shape and color which once again took on a life of their own and continued to grow out of the paint the longer I looked.
—Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own
The lack of discursive thought follows directly from the definition of wide attention—discursive thought is necessarily fixated on one thing.
That’s not to say there’s zero mental chatter during wide attention; words, phrases, even whole sentences drift through my head. Sometimes they fall out of the present experience (“that light looks beautiful!”) but sometimes they’re completely unrelated (“I’m starting to get hungry…I wonder what I should make for dinner”). The difference is I’m able to let the thoughts pass without following them—I don’t start thinking about what’s in my fridge.
One day I was sitting in the sun alone on a ship’s deck with the sea all about me and a gentle wind. I was restless and unhappy, worried because I seemed cut off from enjoying something which I had so often longed for…Suddenly I noticed that I was trying to think, and that I seemed to have taken it for granted that I would be happy if only I could think of something…I realized how silly it was and I stopped trying to do anything, I simply “let go.” At once the whiteness of sunlit ropes against the sea leapt to my eyes and I was deeply content to sit and look.
…My attention flickered7 from one delight to the next like a butterfly, effortless, following its pleasure; sometimes it rested on a thought, a verbal comment, but these not longer made a chattering barrier between me and what I saw, they were woven into the texture of my seeing.
—Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own
The absence of worry and desire is a little harder for me to understand. My best explanation is that both worry and desire are typically about something, and involve directed attention. I do sometimes notice a more vague, objectless worry or desire creeping in at the edges of wide attention, tempting it to collapse into narrow attention.
…once when I was lying, weary and board with myself, on a cliff looking over the Mediterranean, I had said, “I want nothing,” and immediately the landscape dropped its picture-postcard garishness and shone with a gleam from the first day of creation
—Marion Milner, A Life of One’s Own
A subdued sense of self—what in extremis some might refer to as “ego dissolution” or “ego death”—is the subtlest and most complicated aspect of this mental movement. It can be hard to discern unless the shift is very strong, and often the ego-drive is exactly what keeps us from going more deeply into wide attention.
…I gradually became aware of something which seemed to be preventing me making these gestures of feeling out [wide attention]. Certain fears began to take form, shadowy and elusive as yet, but intense as a missed heartbeat. Chiefly there seemed to be a fear of losing myself, of being over taken by something.
But for Milner, that self-annihilation is the apotheosis of wide attention:
…all the things which I had found to be sources of happiness seemed to depend upon the capacity to relax all straining, to widen my attention beyond the circle of personal interest, and to look detachedly at my own experience. I had just realized that this relaxing and detachment must depend on a fundamental sense of security, and yet that I could apparently never feel safe enough to do it, because there was an urge in me which I had dimly perceived but had never yet been able to face…until you have, once at least, faced everything you know—the whole universe—with utter giving in, and let all that is “not you” flow over and engulf you, there can be no lasting sense of security.
Only by being prepared to accept annihilation can one escape from that spiritual “abiding alone” which is in fact the truly death-like state.
Compare with Watts’ assertion in the lecture above that wide attention is the mechanism behind enlightenment, and Aldous Huxley’s assertion that ego-reduction is the same.
I’ve returned to the concept of wide attention several times over the course of my ~8 year journey into meditation, dreamwork, psychedelics, and introspection. Each time I rediscover it, it feels like a revelation, a metanoia that catalyzes a thousand lesser insights, a key that unlocks new states of consciousness.
And the applications aren’t just esoteric. When faced with a problem, we tend to scrunch up our nose, furrow our brow, and try to think our way through it; this works about half the time. But the trickiest problems need to be given space—I can’t tell you how many times, after a full day of banging my head against my desk, I’ve spontaneously solved a stubborn problem on a twenty minute walk.
I’m not sure why I have such a strong bias towards narrow attention, or if my bias is stronger or weaker than the average person’s. Maybe some people have the opposite bias, and need to work on strengthening their capacity for focus8.
If I’m being honest, I’m still not great at either mode of attention. My hour-long rainstorm reverie is an exception—typically I can only hold onto wide attention (or conversely, keep my focus on a single object) for minutes at a time.
But I’m steadily getting better. And as I do, my capacity for joy—and enjoyment—grows in tandem.
As captured the next morning, with a few edits for flow and clarity.
I paused as I wrote this sentence, and racked my brain for other moments of extreme contentment. No achievement or external gratification came close. The only specific event I could come up with was an MDMA session with some wonderful people, but even that was filled with manic craving. This experience was closer to spending a semi-conscious Sunday morning in bed with someone you love. There’s something very special about a happiness that’s complete in itself.
It’s interesting to me that all three authors discuss the same phenomenon with similar language, yet none cite each other. I’ve also struggled to find explicit discussions of narrow and wide attention in traditional texts, like the Buddhist Sutras or Hindu scripture—if you know of any, please pass them along!
I like to move with the breath. Sometimes that’s focus on inhale and relax on exhale; other times it’s one full breath for each state. Wilson also talks about combining the pencil exercise with Wilhelm Reich’s breathing exercises in Access to Inner Worlds:
The breathing exercise induces deep relaxation and a sense of physical well-being. The pen exercise induces a sense of concentration and control. The two should, in theory, counteract one another’s effect. But this does not happen. The control itself somehow becomes relaxed and confident, like a baby’s breathing. After a few moments, I noticed the curious sense of exaltation, followed by a sensation as if floating out of my body.
It’s worth noting that some meditation styles focus on narrow, rather than wide attention. This is particularly true of jhāna practice—meditators first learn to hold a focused attention for minutes to hours, then direct that attention towards a pleasant sensation. If they can successfully hold their attention on the pleasure, it balloons into pīti, an overwhelming bliss.
Most disciplines mix the two methods, starting with narrow attention, then moving towards wide attention—the development of narrow attention makes it easier to self-monitor and avoid falling into a stream of discursive thought.
This is why I like Wilson’s pencil trick so much—it balances both forms of attention.
I’ve also described this shift in temporal consciousness as a move from the time-domain to the frequency-domain, a la the Fourier Transform. I’d like to explore this more in a future article.
Interesting to note that this sounds more like a frenetic narrow attention than wide attention. In my experience, there’s a huge continuum between the two, and attention still has a focal point when the aperture is very wide. For me, shifting wide attention feels more like sliding or bubbling than flickering.
If I can speculate wildly for a minute: I’d guess engineers like myself are heavily biased towards narrow attention, and creatives towards wide attention.