Aiming Attention

William Dubin, Ph. D. is licensed by the state of Texas as a Psychologist, and is specialized in the treatment of addictions, having received the ...Read More

Attention is the seat of will. The effort which goes into the exercise of the will is really effort of attention; the strain in willing is the strain of keeping the attention focused. -Rollo May

To get a child to trade something of genuine value for a trivial incentive is so easy that to do so is considered immoral and, in some cases, illegal. Some adults remain as vulnerable to state-dependent phenomena as they were when they were children, and for them provoking a relapse is as easy as taking candy from a baby.

A predisposing cause of relapse is the mentality of childhood. Children assume that their state-dependent perceptions and beliefs are accurate reflections of objective reality. They label their appraisals in ways that crystallize these experiential phenomena into “things” that have an independent reality. For example: “Mommy is bad,” carries with it the tacit premise that “she really is bad and it’s not just that I’m cranky.” The dispassionate observer understands that the child’s cranky state influences his current appraisals, and mommy won’t always seem bad. Later, when the child is in a different emotional state, his appraisal will be influenced by a different state-dependent filter. Naturally, the child is always unaware of the Soul Illusion and in each situation believes that he sees things as they really are.

When a child experiences fear-say in the doctor’s office just before the inoculation-her emotional arousal comes with the tacit premise that the fear is based on a real threat and its intensity is related to the awfulness of the situation. Some children experience such strong emotional states that they must be restrained by adults, even though they are told, “It will just sting for a moment.” Likewise, children often believe that the intensity of their desire for a certain incentive correlates with the degree of pleasure they will actually receive from it.

Many grown-ups continue to think that their perceptions, expectancies, and appraisals are undistorted reflections of a permanent objective reality [see The Soul Illusion]. An important developmental milestone is the appreciation that subjective experience-including cravings, negative thoughts, and anxious feelings-is merely a temporary, state-dependent phenomenon, which exists only in the mind of the beholder. The objective world is populated with events; it is only within your subjective reality that beliefs, emotional reactions, and the story that gives it all meaning exist. The technical term for this realization is, Meta-Cognitive Awareness.

Operating the vehicle you inhabit so that it follows the path of greatest advantage rather than drifting in the direction of least resistance requires the ability to shift from the perspective of the vehicle, whose actions are determined by cause-and-effect principles such as the PIG, to the perspective of the operator of the vehicle, who is sensitive to your core motivation.

There is an ongoing battle for your attention and the winner gets to influence your subjective reality and hence how you will perform in the objective world. Whether or not you are able to exercise will during a particular crisis often depends upon how certain conflicts play out.

When there is conflict between ruminative self focus and real-world problem solving, exercising will involves shifting your attention from the more abstract rumination to the more concrete problem solving in the here and now.

When there is conflict between local incentives and your core motivation, exercising will involves shifting your attention from the more concrete local payoff to the more abstract principles and interests described by your core motivation.

The Exercise of Will

During high-risk situations, it is critical that the rational processing system, which is sensitive to your core motivation rather than to local conditions, is the entity operating the vehicle. For this reason, the necessary first component of the exercise of will is alerting the operator. Exercising will at the critical moments is analogous to the demonstration of musical and athletic virtuosity: The apparent instantaneous and effortless reactions result from considerable effort expended in preparation and practice.

The steps below describe this process in excruciating detail so that it may be understood intellectually. However, this is a procedural skill, which, when executed successfully, takes almost no time to perform.

1. Recognize a warning sign that you are in a high-risk situation.

2. Make the meta-cognitive shift from the state-dependent perspective of the creature (the experiential processing system) to the dispassionate perspective of the operator who appreciates your core motivation (the rational processing system).

3. To make the meta-cognitive shift, dissociate from your local trance and assume the perspective of a kindly observer, who is aware of your thoughts and emotions and understands that these state-dependent phenomena always feel valid and permanent but are merely the experiences of this biological creature at this moment. (Some clients personify this procedure by imagining me, the kindly therapist, eavesdropping on their thoughts and pointing out thinking errors).

4. Initiate this process by doing something concrete such as taking a deep breath, shifting your posture, or using the reminder card, which was specifically designed for this purpose. (It is critical that you make this shift in time. The window of opportunity to escape an unfolding trap is tiny.)

5. Exercise will by guiding the bio-psycho-social vehicle along the intended path, rather than the trajectory that would have been followed by a driverless vehicle.

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