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Exercises In Attention

( Originally Published 1907 )

"IT IS subject to the superior authority of the Ego. I yield it or I withhold it as I please ;

I direct it in turn to several points ; I concentrate it upon each point as long as my Will can stand the effort." Dictionaire Philosophique.


Attention, become habituated, involves constant and strong action of Will;

The idea of Will power, always present in the effort to habituate attention, will come to possess and dominate the mind;

Such domination, by a psychic law, develops the function which it concerns.

The preceding chapters have had in view the development of Will by means of physical exercises. If the suggestions hitherto given have been followed, self-culture has resulted with marked growth in this direction. While our work has been physical, the mind has nevertheless been directly involved, for al-ways the Will has thrust itself forward, both as ruler and as object. We are now to enter more particularly the mental field, with the same end in view.


The value to the Will of perseverance in this work would seem to be evident. A determined effort to develop the volitional power must certainly result in its growth. But mental activity having this end in view will generate unconscious processes making for the same goal. Doctor Holmes has said : " I was told, within a week, of a business man in Boston, who, having an important question under consideration, had given it up for the time as too much for him. But he was conscious of an action going on in his brain which was so unusual and painful as to excite his apprehensions that he was threatened with palsy, or something of that sort. After some hours of this uneasiness, his perplexity was all at once cleared up by the natural solution of his doubt coming to him — worked out, as he believed, in that obscure and troubled interval."

" We are constantly finding results of unperceived mental processes in our consciousness. Here is a striking instance, which I borrow from a recent number of an English journal. It relates to what is considered the most interesting period of incubation in Sir William Rowan Hamilton's discovery of quater-nions. The time was the 15th of October, 1843. On that day, he says in a letter to a friend, he was walking from his observatory to Dublin with Lady Hamilton, when, on reaching Brougham Bridge, he ` felt the galvanic circle of thought close'; and the sparks that fell from it were the fundamental relations between i, j, k, just as he used them ever afterwards."

If, then, the brain may unconsciously work out specific results of thought under the influence of a de-sired end, the idea of a mighty Will, kept constantly before the mind and directing given and continuous mental exercises, will undoubtedly generate a process always tending to build up the volitional powers. And as the Will is located throughout the entire mind, the latter must be wholly brought into action for the Will's training and development.

The secret of our future labor will be found in that which has been absolutely indispensable all along, to wit: ATTENTION. But attention is hereafter to be confined to the intellect. Its direction is not so much outward as inward; its subject is not so truly the senses as the mind and its extension, so to speak, by means of the senses.

"The essential achievement of the Will," says Prof. William James," when it is most voluntary, is to attend to a difficult object and hold it fast before the mind." "Effort of attention is the essential phenomenon of Will."

But what do we mean by the word Attention? Professor James Sully says : " Attention may be roughly defined as the active self-direction (this involves Will) of the mind to any object which presents itself to it at the moment." He refers to the make-up of the word: ad tendere, to stretch towards. " It is somewhat the same as the mind's ` consciousness' of what is present to it. The field of consciousness, however, is wider than that of attention. Consciousness admits of many degrees of distinctness. I may be very vaguely or in-distinctly conscious of some bodily sensation, of some haunting recollection, and so on. To attend is to intensify consciousness by concentrating or narrowing it on some definite or restricted area. It is to force the mind or consciousness in a particular direction so as to make the objects as distinct as possible."

Now, Dr. Scripture remarks on the same subject: " The innumerable psychologies attempt to define it, but when they have defined it, you are sure to know just as much about it as before." Then, to show the difference between the " focus " (of the mind) and the " field " of the present experience (consciousness), he writes : "Ask your friend, the amateur photographer, to bring around his camera. He sets it up and lets you look at the picture on the ground glass. The glass is adjusted so that the picture of a person in the middle of the room is sharply seen; all the other objects are somewhat blurred, depending on their distance from him. Change the position of the glass a trifle. The person becomes blurred and some other object becomes sharp. Thus, for each position of the glass there is an object, or a group of objects, distinctly seen while all other objects are blurred. To make one of the blurred objects distinct, the position of the glass must be changed, and the formerly distinct object be-comes blurred.

" In like manner, we fully attend to one object or group of objects at a time; all others are only dimly noticed. As we turn our attention from one object to another what was formerly distinct becomes dim.

" The illustration with the camera is not quite complete. You can keep the objects quiet in the room, but you cannot keep your thoughts still. The mental condition would be more nearly expressed by pointing the camera down a busy street. You focus first on one thing, then on another. The things in focus pass out of it, others come in. Only by special effort can you keep a moving person or wagon in focus for more than a moment." To " attend," therefore, is to keep the mind " focused" on the one thing, whether it lies among subjects of thought which correspond to the furniture of a room or to moving objects seen in a busy street.

Attention is the " effort of the mind to detain the idea or perception, and to exclude the other objects that solicit its notice." This requires a strong action of the Will. Resolute exercise of attention, there-fore, must strengthen the Will's power.


Exercise No. 1. Sit quietly at ease in a room where you will not be disturbed. By a supreme effort of Will, drive every thought and fancy out of mind. Hold the mind blank as long as possible. How long can you sustain this effort successfully? Be not discouraged. Persistence will win. After a genuine at-tempt, rest a few moments. Then try again. Practise the exercise daily for ten days, with rest of two days, making at least six attempts each day. Keep a record of results, and at the end of the period note improvement. The Will must be taught to be supreme.

Exercise No. 2. Sit quietly as before. When the mind is a blank, hold it so for a few seconds. Then instantly begin to think of some one thing, and now exclude every other thought. Keep the attention rigidly upon this particular subject as long as possible. The direction does not mean that you are to follow a train of ideas upon the subject, but that you are to fasten the mind keenly upon the one thing or idea and retain it in the field of attention, just as you may look at some object, focusing sight and observation there, and there alone. Rest. Repeat six times. Make record. Continue every day for ten days, with rest. Then note improvement in power.

Exercise No. 3. Permit the mind to wander whither it will one minute. Now write out all that you recall of these wandering thoughts. Then proceed to find and indicate in writing the connections that bind them into a chain. You will thus discover that mental activities may become aimless, but that the mind's roaming is not without explanation. Resolve to keep your thoughts well in hand. Repeat these exercises six times, and continue for ten days, with rest. On the tenth day compare records and note improvement in attention. Try, now, to discover any general laws that have governed the mind's uncontrolled action.

Exercise No. 4. Sit at ease for one minute while thinking of the mind as engaged in reasoning. Do not entertain fancies. Keep out wandering thoughts and sensations. Do not reason ; think of the reasoning power of the mind. Now deliberately pursue some definite line of reasoning for, say, five minutes. Write results, from memory. Rest. Repeat six times. Continue for ten days, with rest. On the tenth day compare records and note improvement in concentration.

Repeat these exercises with the imagination, thinking a picture or plot of acting.

Repeat with the power of Will, imagined as to various acts.

Exercise No. 5. Summons a resolute state of mind. Now select some desired goal in life which you believe to be possible, and will, with all your might, that this shall be. Do not think of means. Fiercely resolve to overcome all difficulties. Do not dwell upon the enjoyment of success, for that will distract the mind. Attend wholly to the Mood of willing. Repeat six times. Continue at least ten days, with rest.

Bed the idea of the goal deeply in mind. Carry it with you into life's activities. Make the resolution a permanent matter, not only of Will, but of feeling as well.

Exercise No. 6. Sit at ease a few seconds. Now think of several acts, as, to walk across the room, or to take a book from a shelf, or to sit still. Continue about five minutes. Various impulses will arise to do one thing or another. Resist them all a little time. Now decide, quickly and resolutely, what you will do. Do not act lazily; do not decide impulsively. Force a real decision. Then act. Do exactly that one thing. Rest. Repeat six times, with different actions. During each act, put the Will into every part thereof. Keep to the fore a strong personal Mood. Continue for ten days, with rest. At the end of the period, note improvement in attention and power of Will.

Exercise No. 7. Set apart by themselves several small objects ; books, coins, paper-knives, etc. Collect a miscellaneous lot. Now, after looking these articles over, decide to arrange them in some particular way according to a determined order of relations. The order may be that of similarity, or difference, and the like. Example: the objects are of many colors; arrange in a complementary way. Now note the general effect. It is probably bad. Why is this? How can the arrangement be improved? Has color anything to do with the arrangement of the furniture of your room? Can it be set into better order in this respect? Try that. Repeat with order according to other resemblances. Repeat with order according to differences.

Always keep the Mood of Will in the foreground during these exercises.

Arrange with a different order six times in each exercise. Continue for ten days, with rest. At the end of the period, observe improvement in attention, together with facility in making the arrangements.

Exercise No. 8. Select several like objects, say, books or articles of furniture. Now arrange the books according to titles. Is this the best possible arrangement? Try to improve it. Arrange the furniture for finest effect in the room, having color, shape, style, etc., in mind. Repeat with other similar articles. With each set of objects make six different arrangements. Continue for ten days, with rest. Then note improvement as before.

Exercise No. 9. Select several dissimilar objects. Lay them out conveniently before you. Take one of them in hand. What does it suggest? Connect that suggestion immediately, that is, without any inter-mediate idea, with another article. What does this suggest? Connect the suggestion with a third article. Continue in this way until all the objects have been connected. Place the articles, one after another, ac-cording to connecting suggestions, before you. Do everything slowly, deliberately and with a strong sense of willing. Rest after the first complete experiment a few seconds. Then repeat with different articles six times. Continue for ten days, with rest, and then note improvement in attention and facility of connections made.

Here is an example : Book— (suggesting) —Per-son — (suggesting) — Note — (suggesting) — Writer — (suggesting) — Pen — (suggesting) --- Mightier (suggesting) — Sword — (suggesting) — Sharp --(suggesting) Knife — (suggesting) — Point — (suggesting) -- Pin — (suggesting) — Bright — (suggesting) -- Gold Watch.

The above exercises are somewhat difficult, and their practice will require patience and time. But the value of such work will appear when we remember " that the act of voluntary attention involves a conscious effort of the soul." It is the " conscious effort" that this book seeks to develop. And for two reasons : first, that the reader may acquire the habit of carrying with him everywhere the Will-pervaded Mood of the strong personality; secondly, that adequate power of attending to motives may become a permanent factor of his life.

Read, therefore, the following with greatest care:

"Variations in the relative strength of motives mainly arise from the degree of attention that we give to them respectively." People often act wrongly or unwisely because they fail here. "Thus, for example, a hungry man, seeing bread in a baker's window, is tempted to break the glass and steal a loaf of bread. The motive here is the prospect of satisfying his hunger. But the man is not a mere machine, impelled by a single force. He knows that if he is caught, he will be punished as a thief. He knows, too, that this is a wrong act which he is considering, and that his con-science will reprove him. Now he can fix his attention upon one of these restraining motives. The impulse to break the glass thus loses its power. The element of time is an important factor, for the longer he delays and deliberates, the more numerous will be the restraining motives which arise in his consciousness."

But avoidance of crime is a very small part of most people's lives. For the majority, "How to get on in all good ways," is a comprehensive, and the ruling, question. The value of attention obtains here in ways similar to those above suggested. A strong Will is demanded. Ability to hold the mind to one thing is imperative. Power of concentrating thought upon motives, and the best motives, is called for every day of our existence. The great symbol of all our exercises, therefore, is Attention! ATTENTION!

" From what has already been said, it can be inferred that tenacious attention is one of the strongest factors in a cultivated will. Some modern psychologists insist that attention is the only power of the will.

" The man who can hold uninteresting ideas before his mind until they gather interest, is the man who is going to succeed.

" The only way to cultivate attention is by a continuous effort of will. If the attention wanders from any subject for ninety-nine consecutive times, bring the attention back ninety-nine consecutive times. Make an effort to concentrate the mental powers each time. A habit of attention will surely grow in this way.

"It is hardly possible to over estimate the importance of tenacious attention. A man with half the natural ability of some geniuses often accomplishes far more, because he keeps his attention undivided on one thing until he has mastered it."

Here is an open secret of big, shrewd, notable men in the professional and financial marts of to-day — close, concentrated, calm-minded attention. It does not require a tight-fisted, muscle-tensed, set condition of body but rather a ONE AIM held closely in mind with distracting outside sensations excluded.

But the words which we have so often met in the preceding pages indicate the ultimate and priceless goal:


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