The inner limb begins with attention.
What is attention? To me, it is a directive of energy that is similar to love: it can be focused upon an object, it can be broadened to encompass our surroundings, it can be directed inwards, it can vary in intensity, quality, and duration. But if we leave love to the realm of the mystics and poets, we can ground ourselves in attention as:
A Latin and old French word that means “to stretch towards”. This, too, is a beautiful image— imagine your mind stretching towards. Towards what? Towards the object/intention of your attention (a= to; ten=stretch). Similarly, in Sanskrit, the root “tan” is to stretch. You’ll see the root in common yoga asana (uttanasana) as well as in daily vocabulary (eg, in Bengali, we use the word tan to mean not just stretch but stress/pressure).
The word attention came into daily English usage only in the 17th century, around the same time as the word “nervous” and “nervous strain” came into usage. ‘Attention’ was used similarly to ‘courtesy’, while ‘nervous’ meant not anxious but relating to the mind, in usually a positive way. The military adopted ‘attention’ in 1792 (I would love to know what happened that year), and around the same time, nervous came into a more negative usage, similar to the way we use it today.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, English took ‘attention’ to mean ‘power of mental concentration’, and began using ‘attention span’ as a phrase. In comparison, the Sanskrit concepts of attention and mental concentration have been taught not only in Indian yogic disciplines but also through Buddhist and martial arts traditions (dhyana, the state of meditation, was adopted by the Chinese as zen). The words for meditation and concentration are commonly used in spoken languages, showing how meditation and attention is woven into the cultural fabric of India and neighboring countries.
Western culture has a lot of catching up to do! And may be a reason why we are so deeply interested in the eastern philosophy today.
What can we do with attention? We can:
draw attention (to… what? Tangible nouns, intangible concepts, feelings, causes…)
call (for) attention (which ranges from teenagers TikToking in their bedrooms to BLM protests)
Paying attention is the most common, and evocative, phrase. It reflects the energetic cost of attention, and that this is a single direction, one way transaction: we pay attention to something or someone; we may or may not receive/attract/get attention back (and now we are back to love; unrequited, etc).
Getting, receiving, drawing attention can be positive or negative, a pulling inwards of energy from one or many people, either known or unknown. Social media is fascinating here: we can draw attention, energy, from strangers we have never and will never see. The energy/attention is transmitted directly from blue lit screens to dopamine hits via number of views, likes, followers.
When we are calling for attention, we recognize that attention is a valuable, limited commodity not to be taken for granted. We also recognize the power of attention. We can start a viral hashtag, we can find meditative bliss, we can find the love of our life/ love for our life.
Unlike a tangible resource, attention is energy that we can generate ourselves. How do we increase our available resources of high quality energy so that we can attend to what truly matters in life? This is the work of yoga, of alchemy, of transformation.