If attention is given exclusively to a task in which an end result is sought, then there is far more likelihood of achieving those results because distracting thoughts and feelings have been eliminated. More significantly, the ego that wants the result is temporarily forgotten. This attitude and practice can be applied to all aspects of life, from the trivial to the long term; from making a cup of coffee to working towards promotion at work or getting to know the girl in the next office.
Someone may have what everyone regards as a boring, repetitive job, which on the face of it offers not the slightest scope for originality or imagination. Most people in such a situation will simply learn the necessary movements until they become automatic and then switch off. They will continue to perform the motions but with their minds elsewhere, whether dreaming of holidays, eyes wandering around the room looking for stimulation or mentally solving differential equations. Their attention will be unfocussed on the task and they will not feel at all involved in what they are doing – most likely, they will claim to be bored out of their minds. But it is possible to make even the most mundane of activities into a challenge and become involved, whether by trying to perfect one’s movements, turning them into a ballet or simply trying to minimize the elapsed time to perform a sequence.
It is easier to give our attention to something that we deem to be interesting but, with practice, the reverse can also happen – interest can be generated by giving our attention to an unwelcome task. Prisoners in solitary confinement have retained their sanity by devising intellectual games, mentally writing poetry or trying to picture scenes in the cracks and marks on a blank wall. Through determinedly giving their full attention to such tasks, a sense of purpose is retained and the mind kept active.
Attention to something external also takes us away from awareness of our selves. We become less self-conscious, which means less egocentric and therefore more truly our real self, and thus happier. Attention can even reduce body consciousness to the level where we are no longer aware of pain. I always remember a cross-country race at school. I was performing well and fully intent simply on the race. My parents were watching and I was determined to do my best. I even put on a sprint for the last hundred yards or so and managed to overtake another runner. As soon as I passed the finish line, I collapsed in exhaustion. But it was only after a minute or so that I realized that my heel was painful. Looking down, I saw that a large blister had formed and burst, with blood all over my sock. I had not noticed this at all whilst running. Pain is an evolutionary development to draw our attention to the body when it is injured so that we may take appropriate action. But we are not the body and, if we are otherwise engaged on what is deemed to be a more important activity, pain can be ignored.
Attention is also related to habit and conditioning. There is always a tendency to act as we have done in the past, making the same mistakes or failing because the situation is not quite the same as it was last time. If we have learnt how to perform a particular activity, it may be easier to repeat the actions mechanically, without attention, leaving our minds free to daydream but this can never be responsive to the unique demands of the present situation. Attention can only be directed to a task if the mind is free of thoughts, available to assess the needs and make appropriate decisions in clarity. Absence of attachment to ideas in mind is tantamount to absence of ego, detachment from a vested interest in the outcome.
It is the same principle as was mentioned in respect of desire and happiness. Whilst the desire is there, we feel unfulfilled, sensing a lack. At the moment that the desired object is obtained, we feel one with it; the sense of separation between it and ourselves is temporarily dissolved. The sense of a separate ego is momentarily lost and happiness, our true natural state, reigns for a while… until the next desire comes along.
It follows from this that losing the ego permanently would bring about happiness in everything that we do. It is the ego that habitually gets in the way. This is all very paradoxical, of course – I want to be happy but, while there is an “I” that wants this, there is not going to be any lasting happiness. The way to act is not to invest any egotistical element into a particular outcome. We must act simply in response to the needs of the situation without seeking any result, whether for ourselves or another. Simply empty the mind completely of all thoughts and let the attention rest on the point at which the work is being done.