Finding Greater Happiness by Directing Our Attention

A Life of One’s Own: Part 7
One of the most influential books on my life is Marion Milner’s A Life of One’s Own.1 Milner was a British Psychoanalyst. She lived from February 1, 1900 to May 29, 1998. When Milner was 27 years old, she began keeping a record of “what kinds of experience” made her happy. Seven years later, she published her findings.

Milner says her search for happiness seemed like “an ever-receding horizon” and, at times, she said she “felt a little overwhelmed with the difficulties of my enterprise”. This is a reminder that making progress in things like happiness and psychological well-being can take time, effort, and practice – but it does work. Milner provides some starting points:

  • How We Perceive Influences Our Happiness. Milner writes, “The first thing I noticed was that in certain moods the very simplest things, even the glint of electric light on the water in my bath, gave me the most intense delight, while in others I seemed to be blind, unresponding and shut off, so that music I loved, a spring day or the company of my friends, gave me no contentment.”
  • We Can Cultivate Our Perception by Writing Things Down. Writing does several things. (1) It gives clarity to an otherwise vague experience. (2) It enhances the experience. (3) It allows us to notice subtle shifts in how we perceive things. “Particularly was I struck by the effect of writing things down. It was as if I were trying to catch something and the written word provided a net which for a moment entangled a shadowy form which was other than the meaning of the words. Sometimes it seemed that the act of writing was fuel on glowing embers, making flames leap up and throw light the surrounding gloom, giving me fitful gleams of what before unguessed at.”
  • We Can Control Our Perceptions – At Will: “So now I began to discover that there were a multitude of ways of perceiving, ways that were controllable by what I can only describe as an internal gesture of the mind.” She goes on to say that we have a “self-awareness” or “I-ness”. This “I-ness” is the core of our being. “This core of being could, I now discovered, be moved about at will.” “Usually this centre of awareness seemed to be somewhere in my head. But gradually I found that I could if I chose push it out into different parts of my body or even outside myself altogether.” Perception is more than thinking. It involves our body and all our senses. Milner uses music as an example of how we already know how to do this.
  • Music: If I keep music in my head only I will shortly be “absorbed in the chatter of my own thoughts, personal preoccupations” and lose the connection to the music altogether. If we push our awareness out into our bodies or even outside our bodies (like at a concert), our perception of the music changes and enriches the quality of the music. I know what she means. For example, I was listening to Fiona Apple’s song Shameika2 this past summer when the music took over. I don’t think I was dancing down the street, but it certainly felt that way.
  • Observing: While watching gulls Milner says, “My idle boredom with the familiar became a deep-breathing peace and delight, and my whole attention was gripped by the pattern and rhythm of their flight, their slow sailing which had become a quiet dance.” You see this way of perceiving in children. Our year-old granddaughter will pick up the sound of a train from a half-mile a way. It’s something I don’t notice until she points it out. She’s aware of the train. She knows it’s a train. She mimics the sound of the train. This awareness brings her joy. We knew how to do that once. We can relearn it.
  • Physical Activities: Milner describes playing Ping Pong. “For I had been brought up to believe that to try was the only way to overcome difficulty . . . And trying meant frowning, tightening muscles, effort. So if ping-pong was difficult. one must try. The result was a stiff body, full of effort, and a jerky swipe at the ball, until someone said: ‘Play with a loose arm’, and I tried, unbelieving. At once the ball went crisply skimming the net to the far court, not once only, but again and again, as long as I could hold myself back from meddling. What surprised me was that my arm seemed to know what to do by itself, it was able to make the right judgements of strength and direction quite without my help. Here the internal gesture required seemed to be to stand aside.” Milner says, “But one day I read somewhere that one should learn to become aware of all one’s bodily movements.” She adds, “I found it was not just a momentary effect, but it returned whenever I again managed to hold my interfering brain in leash.”

These are the starting points of how to use a “simple gesture of the mind” to direct our attention. Milner further explores how she would use this “gesture of the mind” to spread the arms of her awareness toward greater perception, recharge her body when exhausted, and engage life instead of just thinking about it. I will likely cover those things in future posts.

A Life of Ones Own. Marion Milner (Joanna Field). First published 1934. The Estate of Marion Milner. 2011 – Routledge. Series Editor: Emma Letley. All quotations is this post are from this book.

2Fiona Apple. Shameika. Fetch the Bolt Cutters (album). Epic Records. 2020.

Jesus Follower, Blogger, Public Speaker.

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2 comments on “Finding Greater Happiness by Directing Our Attention
  1. Julia Bloom says:

    I read this book last year after reading your recommendation in a previous post, really enjoyed it! Nice to review the ideas here.

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