The Promise of Attention - The Gifts Of A Wandering Mind
I recently listened to an interesting podcast with Ezra Klein and Johann Hari, author of “Stolen Focus.” They had a discussion about attention and how many people are finding it more and more difficult to engage in deep focus. I’ve noticed this in myself, that its become harder over the past years to dig in and read a long article. There has been important research that has confirmed that the constant bombardment of information, the pressure to multi-task and spend smaller units of time on each task is creating a climate of distraction. I think its important to acknowledge that it is not just a matter of will power. Google, Facebook and other media companies have created complex and effective systems where their business model and how they make a profit is based upon getting us to pick up our phones and tune-in as long as possible.
There are parts of our brain that love novelty, are attracted to the feel of community, that evolutionarily developed to always be scanning for danger and changes around us. These companies have preyed on what were developed originally as evolutionary advantages and exploited them as vulnerabilities. So its been important for me to be aware that my brain is being “pinged” pretty constantly, It is important for me to develop awareness, self compassion and know that its not my fault or just a failure of will power when I’m drawn into what was absolutely and deliberately designed to draw me in. There is no failing in being pinged. But I also know that the more aware and curious I am about that pinging, the more possible it is to make a conscious effort and decision to inhabit my own life and reclaim my attention.
I can’t change (and really don’t want to change) that there is a part of my brain that responds to and loves new and interesting things, I love the part of my mind that delights in a wildflower I’ve never seen before, that savors a new song, poem or idea, that loves learning a new skill. I also can’t change there is a part of my brain that is always scanning for the lion that might be near by, and that our commercial new system, its constant “breaking news” designed to keep me either enraged, afraid or both taps into my ancient survival system and draws me in. This is not a bad part of my brain, its the same helpful part, that reminds me to not touch hot stoves and when I see an oncoming train it might not be a good time to stand on the tracks.
So, when I’m “pinged’ its become a good practice to stop and say, “well, you’ve been pinged - thats data, not a judgement.” That is when I can choose, I can breathe and know in this moment that I’m ok and that I don’t have to tune in to see what scary thing just happened in breaking news. I can choose to stop and not follow that curated ad designed to intrigue me. I can choose to sit on my front porch and enjoy breakfast, hear the sounds of the birds, savor the green tea, let my mind wander a bit.
The poet, Mary Oliver, said that the first work of the poet is to pay attention. The poet Billy Collins wrote that the first job of a poet is to look out the window. But I believe their advice was not just for poets. As I get older I become increasingly aware that there are more days behind me than ahead of me. I want to experience this precious time is by expanding it from the inside, not allowing constant pinging to narrow it from the outside. As an artist I know that creativity is a combination of noticing, paying attention to the details, and allowing my mind to wander. Ponder for a moment that when a teacher wrote down on my report card, “tends to day dream” that should have been an affirmation, not an problem. Daydreaming and letting our minds integrate and make interesting connections is a different kind of attention. I notice that when I give my mind and spirit unfettered time, something relaxes, new connections and something creative might happen. This kind of activity doesn’t fit in our societal version of productivity which encourages that we fill every space in our mind at all times. But it does fit with a more open and creative and delighted mind, a more spacious heart and spirit.
And so attention is kind of two fold. First, there is the process of noting when we are distracted by external forces like media, and then reclaiming our ability to be present to our own lives. Second, is negotiating constant stimulation and our culture’s push for endless productivity which limits our ability to expand our attention and awareness, give our hearts and minds space to reflection, make connections, integrate, dream and imagine.
There are the external forces that are fueling our attention crisis, and so it is important to be conscious about who and where we give our precious attention and to give myself self-compassion and collect data when I notice I’ve been pinged.
It is also important to I allow my mind to rest, play and wander. Reflection can be focused on journaling, prayer, directed meditation and reading. But reflection can also happen when we open our minds and just let a little space and fresh air in.
The next time you are pinged and something in you says “I need to turn on the news for the 12th time today,” give yourself some love, take a breath. Then say, “right here and now I’m ok, and there is no lion in the bushes.” The next time you are on a bus, or shuttle or plane or train or waiting for an appointment or for a friend to arrive at a restaurant - keep your phone closed. Breathe, take in the space you are in, notice but allow your mind to go where it will with what you notice. Our societal “be productive” training might cause some knee-jerk anxiety for a moment, but breathe, know that there is nothing more important to than to be right where you are…and perhaps to dream, delight, and be in that open sense of now.
Try this and see if you feel a bit more refreshed.
Question and Suggestion
Notice when you’ve been “pinged”. Can you view that feeling of distraction with compassion, as data, not a failure of attention?
What happens when you give yourself a bit of grace, and make your next decision about attention from that space of self kindness and awareness?
For today, or even for an hour or so, tie a bit of ribbon around your smart phone. Choose when you take it off, choose when you replace it. Let us know what it was like.
As always I love to hear from you about these questions and suggestions, or just thoughts for the community.
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Because not all news is distraction….
I will be posting my thoughts on the January 6th hearings as the story unfolds. I know that is something anyone concerned about our shared democracy will be following. But….I’ll be deliberately taking off my yarn to engage with that information :-)