You think abstractly when you conceptualise or imagine something which is not in front of your face here and now. Say, when you think – It would be really nice if these children stopped throwing their food into my bag – you imagine a situation which is different from the one which is happening. In order to do so, you separate yourself from your surroundings (in your mind you can do it really quickly) and imagine an alternative reality. It means that for this short moment you create two separated realities (the real one, and the imagined one) being in the objective attention style.
But it is not only that. After dividing your reality you continue dividing everything (again only in your mind) into many interconnected parts which are truly inseparable from each other. Concepts of good and bad, true and false, right and left, big and small, clever and daft exist in your head only when you think abstractly.
In general, abstract thinking is based on many concepts which we believe are real when they are actually not. For example, there is no card on a day saying – this is Friday, there is no sign on a tree – this is the birch, and you were not born with a little manual explaining what your nationality is. All names, numbers, definitions, opinions, beliefs, hopes for the future and the future itself, belong to abstract thinking.
You may say – an ability to think abstractly seems very useful because it helps us to improve our life. In our heads we can imagine better alternatives, we can plan our actions and predict their outcomes. Science, education is based on abstract thinking and after all, this is what makes us superior to animals.
And this is true but, there is a catch.
When you imagine how things could be, you can feel disappointed, frustrated or angry with what is actually happening around you. When you imagine the undesired future you can become anxious, fearful or scared because you can imagine what horrible things can possibly happen to you. You can also become depressed if you imagine there is nothing good waiting for you any more.
On the other hand when you live in the here and now, without imagining how things could be, you give yourself a chance to immerse. You can still stop and think – I would be better mowing my garden now – in the middle of a Saturday evening party, but I guess it is not likely to happen. When you are immersed in your surroundings you do not generate an alternative realities in your head. You enjoy what is happening as you are connecting with something or someone and only the present is real. In this style you can lose yourself in an action, you are on a roll, on the same wave, you are gel-ing with someone. You feel unified and synchronised. Everything is as it is without analysing and wasting time on fruitless speculations about alternative realities.
Now lets see what Moses told us in the story about the first people, Adam and Eve.
Adam and Eve lived in Paradise. It was apparently a great place to live with only one, small inconvenience – forbidden access to ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil‘.
We all assume living in Paradise was making them very happy. But could it be that the source of their happiness was inability to think abstractly and to separate themselves from here and now. They did not know that something could be good or evil, better or worse, convenient or inconvenient and – most importantly – that ‘it all could be different’. Can we say they lived fully immersed with the Universe enjoying it as it was?
Then Eve ate an apple from ‘the tree of knowledge of good and evil’. She looked around, she thought for a moment and she decided that everything was good but something could be better. She realised that she was naked and she could not be. Can we say that Eve ate the apple and she created good and bad in her head – two sides of the same coin, objective one to another – she started think abstractly and lost peace of her mind? Eating the apple from ‘the tree of knowledge of good an evil‘ switched her attention from immersed to objective and she paid the price.
Then God noticed hesitation on their faces and he immediately understood what had happened – they ate the apple and they created ‘the better world’ in their heads immediately becoming discontent with the one around them. They switched their dominant attention style from immersed to objective and it made them feel uncertain and incomplete. They left Paradise and they started a never-ending search for their better World.
You may share with me my impression that many of us continue this search till today and the only way to slow it down and make it less exhausting is to balance our attention and become attention flexible.
Flexible attention is an ability to alternate between narrow attention (focused) and diffused attention (broad) or to apply both at the same time.
Narrowing makes us specific but requires dividing reality into smaller pieces (objects). Diffusing allows us to see the big picture and connect (immerse) with its elements.
Pain, anxiety and problems make the attention narrow and objective. We can self help ourselves by diffusing and immersing our attention.
Continue to this post.