“The Book On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are”
by Alan Watts
Here is someone who has never seen a cat. He is looking through a narrow slit in a fence, and, on the other side, a cat walks by. He sees first the head, then the less distinctly shaped furry trunk, and then the tail. Extraordinary!
The cat turns round and walks back, and again he sees the head, and a little later the tail. This sequence begins to look like something regular and reliable. Yet again, the cat turns round, and he witnesses the same regular sequence: first the head, and later the tail. Thereupon he reasons that the event head is the invariable and necessary cause of the event tail, which is the head's effect.
This absurd and confusing gobbledygook comes from his failure to see that head and tail go together: they are all one cat. The cat wasn't born as a head which, sometime later, caused a tail; it was born all of a piece.
A head-tailed cat.
Our observer's trouble was that he was watching it through a narrow slit, and couldn't see the whole cat at once. The narrow slit in the fence is much like the way in which we look at life by conscious attention, for when we attend to something we ignore everything else.
Attention is narrowed perception. It is a way of looking at life bit by bit, using memory to string the bits together—as when examining a dark room with a flashlight having a very narrow beam.
Perception thus narrowed has the advantage of being sharp and bright, but it has to focus on one area of the world after another, and one feature after another. And where there are no features, only space or uniform surfaces, it somehow gets bored and searches about for more features.
Attention is therefore something like a scanning mechanism in radar or television, and Norbert Wiener and his colleagues found some evidence that there is a similar process in the brain. But a scanning process that observes the world bit by bit soon persuades its user that the world is a great collection of bits, and these he calls separate things or events.
We often say that you can only think of one thing at a time. The truth is that in looking at the world bit by bit we convince ourselves that it consists of separate things; and so give ourselves the problem of how these things are connected and how they cause and effect each other.
The problem would never have arisen if we had been aware that it was just our way of looking at the world which had chopped it up into separate bits, things, events, causes, and effects. We do not see that the world is all of a piece like the head-tailed cat. We also speak of attention as noticing.
To notice is to select, to regard some bits of perception, or some features of the world, as more noteworthy, more significant, than others. To these we attend, and the rest we ignore—for which reason conscious attention is at the same time ignoreance (i.e., ignorance) despite the fact that it gives us a vividly clear picture of whatever we choose to notice. Physically, we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch innumerable features that we never notice.
You can drive thirty miles, talking all the time to a friend. What you noticed, and remembered, was the conversation, but somehow you responded to the road, the other cars, the traffic lights, and heaven knows what else, without really noticing, or focussing your mental spotlight upon them. So too, you can talk to someone at a party without remembering, for immediate recall, what clothes he or she was wearing, because they were not noteworthy or significant to you. Yet certainly your eyes and nerves responded to those clothes. You saw, but did not really look.