Our Undivided Attention
I can’t remember. Was it me who coined the phrase, or F.M. Alexander, or Frank Pierce Jones? It seems many Alexander teachers use the phrase now, teachers who I have not trained. Did the phrase migrate through the Alexander world, or did it emerge from the contemporary collective unconscious of the Alexander community?
No matter. What I do remember is that one day the phrase presented itself to me.
It began when I began understanding the difference between what Alexander meant by concentration and attention. When I was a kid my mom brought home a new kind of shampoo called Prell Concentrate. Someone had figured out how to put a lot of shampoo in a little plastic container, thus spending less money to package their product. Prell Concentrate was so concentrated that you now only needed to use a tiny bit to work up a good lather. “That’s it, I thought. That’s what we do. That’s why Alexander discourages concentrating. When we concentrate it’s as if we’re squeezing ourselves into a smaller container.” This strategy might be saving Prell a lot of money, but for us it was creating a lot of tension.
Lots of us were reading Krishnamurti in the early 70’s, when I first began studying Alexander’s work. It’s worth quoting Krishnamurti here at length on the subject.
May 6, 1982
What do we mean by attention? What is the difference between awareness, concentration, and attention? Could we go into that together? To be aware; as one is sitting under these beautiful trees on a lovely morning, nice and cool, not too hot, one is aware of that woodpecker pecking away, one is aware of the green lawn, the beautiful trees and sunlight, the spotted light; and if you are looking from that direction, you are aware of those mountains. How does one look at them? …Do you observe it, aware of it without any choice, without any desire? …How does one react to all that? What is the feeling behind that awareness? …Is it related to our life; is it part of our life; …That’s part of awareness, the awareness of the external and the awareness of one’s own reactions to the external, and to be aware of the movement of this…
…And can one be aware without any choice at all, just to be aware of the extraordinary sense of the blue sky, the blue sky through the leaves, and just move with it all? And is one aware of one’s reactions, and when one is aware of one’s reactions is there a preference; one more desirable than the other, one more urgent than the other…and so from the outer move to the inner – you understand what I am saying – so that there is no division between the outer and the inner; it’s like a tide going out and coming in. That’s an awareness of this world outside of us and an awareness of the world deep inside of us…
What is concentration? To concentrate upon a page, upon a picture; to concentrate all one’s energy on a particular point: in that concentration is there not the effort to concentrate? …You are trying to read a particular page and out of the window you see a marvelous light on a flower and your thought wanders off to that, but you try then to pull that thought back, and concentrate on something. So there is this constant struggle to focus one’s energy, visual, and so on, so there is a resistance, a struggle, and all the time trying to focus on a particular point…
Frank Pierce Jones
Frank Pierce Jones was a classics professor at Brown University who trained with F.M. Alexander, A.R. Alexander, and Marjorie Barstow. He had a way with words.
For Jones concentration was like using a spot light to light up a black stage. One small area was intensely lit while the rest of the stage remained black. Using a diffuse light was kin to attention, the whole stage being lit.
For Jones attention was “the simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment.” A good phrase, but not yet, the phrase.
In Judaism there is a central prayer called the Shema. It’s so important Jews are supposed to recite it every night before they go to sleep and if possible it should be upon their lips as they are dying. It basically means, Listen, God is One. I once asked my rabbi what it meant. He said, God is one, not two.
Jones idea of a simultaneous awareness of oneself-in-relation-to-ones-environment remained subtly dualistic. I wasn’t there yet.
In New Mexico it is said you live in the sky. You look around you and 95% of what you see is the sky. One day I was sitting in my little adobe casita in New Mexico and the question came to me, “Am I inside or outside?” I am in my house, but my house is outside in the world.” If I am inside my house, but my house is outside in the world, then am I not also outside in the world?” Suddenly my body and my mind expanded in all directions. It was like a satori. My container was gone. There was no separation between me and my environment. There was no longer an inside and an outside. There was only outside, and I was in it! God is one, not two.
And there I said the words, the phrase, for the first time.
A unified field…a unified field of attention. That is what I was. My way of being in the world shifted that day, and with it my way of teaching Alexander’s work.
I loved the word field…a field, a pasture, a field of study, field notes, a force field, a field of vision.
It was like zooming in or zooming out, a metaphor for expressing this concept I was later to learn from Robyn Avalon, director of the Alexander Alliance in America. Zooming in was concentrating, and zooming out was expanding your field of attention. Unifying your field of attention was going one step further. It was you no longer behind the camera, because there was no longer a camera, and there was no longer a you in the center of anything. There was just a field, a field of attention.
A Seurat exhibition was at the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. There it was, the field. Nothing but points, all the same size, all of the same value, nothing more important or less important than anything else, no especially anything, or just especially everything…a homogenous field of tone and attention.
Gazing into a drawing of Seurat’s mother I began thinking about the Heart Sutra. The words were suddenly making sense. Finally I was physically sensing the truth behind the sutra.
Form does not differ from emptiness, emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form.
Pixels. You take a digital photo; a person in the foreground, hills and sky in the background. All pixels, all the same size. Pixels making up the person, the hills, the sky. All equal, all the same. You zoom in and in and in only to find space. More and more space.
What if we were like this? What if we were less solid than we felt ourselves to be? What if the whole universe was like this? Stephen Hawkins writes:
“Now at first sight, all this evidence that the universe looks the same whichever direction we look in might seem to suggest there is something special about our place in the universe. In particular, it might seem that if we observe all other galaxies to be moving away from us, then we must be at the center of the universe. There is, however, an alternate explanation: the universe might look the same in every direction as seen from any other galaxy too. We have no scientific evidence for, or against, this assumption. We believe it on the grounds of modesty: it would be most remarkable if the universe looked the same in every direction around us, but not around other points in the universe! The situation is rather like a balloon with a number of spots painted on it being steadily blown up. As the balloon expands, the distance between any two spots increases, but there is no spot that can be said to be the center of the expansion.”
It’s a very large field indeed, a unified field, a field with neither center nor circumference, neither inside nor outside. One unified field. How miraculous that, for however briefly, we get to give it our undivided attention, that we get to attend.