War. Huh? What is it good for?

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 4, Part 4 of 19 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

Student: I have a question about when you were talking about when your mind is running, or your imagination is running away or running rampant.

CTT: Who was talking about that?

Student: I think you were.

CTT: I was? Oh. Okay.

Student: I guess this was a dialogue between you and one of the students, or maybe that was something else I was thinking about. Trying to do the sensing to be present, so that your mind will be filled up with focusing on the hearing this, the seeing or the sensing that. Then it won’t have enough room for the mind to wander or to keep on going.

So when my imagination was running I tried doing that, and then at that moment I was okay with it. Then it seemed like it would kind of start up again when I was finished, so I tried to do that again, you know? And it took a long time for my imagination to shut up. Do you have any advice on that?

CTT: Has it started up again?

Student: Yeah. Sure.

CTT: Yeah. One of the places I trained in Aikido many years ago, I don’t recall which one, had a little exercise where we each had a plastic golf tube. Do you know what those things are? They’re long plastic tubes that golf clubs are normally stored in to protect them from being dinged. I don’t know how I ever got one in the first place, but they make great toys for whacking each other because you can’t really hurt anybody with them.

There was an Aikido exercise where you each held one of those like it was a sword. We were facing each other and your job was to strike the other person when you thought you’d get away with it, before they could move to block it. So what you had to do was pay very close attention and stay in the present yourself, while watching your partner to see when her or his attention flickered away for a moment. If you struck then, you could usually hit them. It was a very revealing exercise.

As a general model, not as the absolute truth – I don’t know what the absolute truth is about anything – but as a general model, it’s useful to say we have a certain fixed maximum quantity of attention; seven units or something like that. You know it’s only under extraordinary circumstances you might have eight or nine units. So normally it’s always seven.

What do you do with that seven? Normally processes come along like imagination, daydreaming – automatic reactions to events that happen to us, that grab a lot of that attention and use it up, which reactions trigger other automatic processes on and on and on.

When you are forced to pay attention by the threat of somebody hitting you in that little golf tube sword game, for instance, there isn’t any energy left over for your imagination to work. Some English literary figure, I forget who, and it’s been said in various forms by a lot of other people too, said something like there’s nothing like knowing you’re going to be hanged in the morning to focus your mind. And there’s something very satisfying about being focused, compared to our usual drifting, with attention moving all over the place.

That’s one of the reasons that Gurdjieff said something that nobody ever likes. I don’t know if you’ve come across it in the Ouspensky book yet or not, but he said we’ll probably never get rid of wars because wars force you to concentrate on the present. When somebody’s trying to kill you, those who survive get really focused in the present, and there’s something very satisfying about that! And so some perverse part of our mind is going to keep right on creating wars because we like the thrill of that focus when it comes. I don’t like the idea at all but I think there’s a fair amount of psychological truth to it. That real danger gives a focus of intensity in the now.

Similarly, there’s a lot of other stuff we do that are imitations of that but not quite so serious, like go to horror movies. I think, “Why would any sane creature go to a horror movie?” Yet they’re very popular. But it gets us focused on what’s going to happen when the cellar door creaks open.


But if you learn to focus your attention more directly, you don’t have to depend on indirect things to get that focus. You don’t have to start a war or do something stupid that will put you in a dangerous situation that will force you to pay attention. You can get that satisfaction of being in the present moment in a direct sort of way, and…

Are we still in the present moment? Got some arms or legs or other body parts in there as well as ears and eyes? Good. I’ll keep reminding you once in awhile.

Student: I guess that’s why people like extreme sports like rock climbing.

CTT: Yep. A sport where you must pay precise attention to exactly what’s happening moment by moment, because if you drift away, you get killed. It’s high motivation.

Student: I have a race bike that I ride on a road race track, motorcycle and that. Before I knew anything about this, several years ago I had said that when you’re going into a corner at 100 miles an hour there’s nothing more important than what’s going to happen in the next few seconds. You’re more mindful there because you also have to stay relaxed to be successful, so there’s a lot of conflict.

CTT: Not the time to think about your relationships and what you should have said when she said after he said. Yeah! Focuses you in! So this is not an extreme sport, what we’re doing in here, but it can produce similar effects of bringing you into the present.

One comment

  1. For those who weren’t there, it might be useful to point out that the title of this post is witty because it is a quote from the song that was a big hit for Edwin Starr in 1970. Starr’s reply is “Absolutely nothing!” This is emotionally satisfying in the context of the song, but of course, war persists because it DOES have its uses.

    In addition to focusing attention, there are a few other things war does. It helps concentrate power and increase profits for the military-industrial-congressional-financial-corporate media complex, for example. (See Eisenhower’s Farewell Address in 1961). In Chris Hedges’ book title, “War is a force that gives us meaning.” Doris Lessing points out that it intensifies a primitive form of brotherly love – “Substance of We Feeling” – the acronym is a witticism from an adherent of Idries Shah. And Ernest Becker argues that religious war emerges from our fear of death – our uncertain faith in our own religion’s promises of immortality make us want to kill those who say we’ve got it wrong.

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