First, I have to say thank you to everyone for all of your insightful and thought-provoking comments on the topic of attention. They have been grist for the mill, or like that extra cup of coffee I allow myself sometimes that sends me into overdrive and sets my mind whirling.
Even if we want to pay attention, can we? Can we stand to live a life of attention when that means having to recognize the painful world we live in?
and suggested that her questions are important especially in relation to climate change.
Because I have been paying attention to the topic of attention lately, all sorts of things about attention are popping up. Like the Brain Pickings email I got this morning that had an article about José Ortega y Gasset on the topic of love, attention, and the invisible architecture of our being. Ortega defines attention as “the function charged with giving the mind its structure and cohesion.” Maria Popova asserts in the article:
our attention shapes our entire experience of the world — this, after all, is the foundation of all Eastern traditions of mindfulness, which train the attention in order to anneal our quality of presence — the objects of our attention end up, in a subtle but profound way, shaping who we are.
Aren’t these all delicious thoughts? A person could write a whole book on them. Ha!
So to gather things together, we have attention that gives the mind structure and cohesion; attention as shaper of experience of the world and self; and attention making us recognize the painful world we live in.
What happens then when our attention is fragmented as it so often is in our fast-paced, global capitalist, 5G, never sleeps world? More than not being able to read long books, more than losing time getting sucked into watching YouTube cat videos, more than being stressed and overwhelmed, we are losing depth and context. The news cycle becomes shorter as the next attention grabbing sensational story gets pushed into our feeds. The length of news articles is shorter—tldr (too long didn’t read)—because who has time to read much past the headline anyway? Our disagreements and divisions grow wider and deeper because we silo ourselves off from each other and who has the time to actually stop and have a real conversation? We feed our brains all the chemicals and hormones our bodies release as we get ourselves emotionally worked up bouncing from headline to headline screaming about the outrageous behavior of this politician and the hypocrisy of that one instead of getting the full story and thinking about what is actually going on. Before we know it, we are doomscrolling ourselves into a panic attack.
It so happens that one of my favorite podcasts, Crazy Town, had an episode on attention back in May. The theme of the season is invisible drivers and they proposed that our scattered attention keeps people from focusing on climate change. In the episode they shared some interesting statistics that I am going to share with you:
- The average person spends 153 minutes a day on social media (that’s a few minutes short of 3 hours)
- 4.7 million YouTube videos are watched every minute
- Almost 4 million Google searches are made every minute
- 20% of all the things get 80% of our attention
Researchers are finding that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. Our technology has evolved faster than our brains and our technology, especially social media, takes advantage of it. As a result, our inability to truly pay attention has led to a consolidation of power. Think of all the things you do online that belong to Google and Facebook. Think of how few media companies there are now compared to 20 years ago or even 10. Think of the independent and small neighborhood newspapers that no longer exist.
We are afraid of being bored, our creativity is waning (why is there an entire industry built on helping us be more creative?), and our critical thinking abilities are missing in action. What does this have to do with climate change?
If we slowed down enough to actually pay attention to what is going on, we’d see just how forked we are right now. Who wants to sit in the realization of that? Who wants to admit to the part they have played in it when it’s Amazon Prime Day? Who wants to face up to the very likely reality of the horrible world their children and grandchildren are going to live in? And heck, even you and me if we live long enough. Who wants to notice the absence of birds and insects and think about what that means? Who wants to see the signs of ecological, economic, and societal collapse? Better to distract ourselves with another cat video or look at the vacation photos on Facebook of the friend we went to high school with but haven’t actually seen in person or had a conversation with since we graduated.
Because if we begin to truly pay attention, we’d have to stop lying to ourselves that everything is fine. And it’s going to feel bad. Very bad. Instead of feeling the feelings, instead of learning to live with them, we start rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. But if we feel the feelings and learn to live with them, maybe instead of rearranging deck chairs we will find ourselves doing something to make a difference.
Just think what might happen if we took back our attention, took back our time and started giving it to the things that really matter. The collective power would be amazing; change would happen! Google and Facebook and pretty much all the people in power right now, don’t want that to happen, they want to maintain the status quo, they want to keep us distracted and divided because that makes us easier to manipulate. If anyone actually believes the pledges several oil companies have made to become carbon neutral, I have a beach house in Florida I can sell you for a bargain! (Please note, I don’t actually have a beach house in Florida, but if you do, I’d recommend that you sell it now before sea levels get any higher).
So what do we do to get our attention back? In the podcast I mentioned earlier they have a short interview with our friend and expert of doing nothing, Jenny Odell. Here are some of the suggestions that came out that conversation:
- Use tools to help better manage your time
- Spend more time in nature
- Don’t be afraid of boredom; from boredom comes creativity
- Create a safe space to feel the feelings
Also, I will add, reclaiming our attention is a process. There will be setbacks so be kind to yourself. And find people who are trying to do the same thing (like me! You can always send me an email! A letter through the post even!). The internet and social media is not all bad. Better, of course if you can find people in your community who you can see in person to meet with and talk and offer mutual support.
I am far from perfect and nowhere near having any of this sorted out. I don’t have the answers and I am pretty sure there is not just one or two answers anyway; no quick fix, nothing easy or that will take no effort, no time or little attention. But I do believe, like those quotes I started off with, that we are shaped by what we give our attention to, that attention is a form of love or at the very least caring.
I would much rather be shaped by the plants in my garden, the bee on the flower, the smile and friendly greeting from the pedestrian in the crosswalk as I sit on my bike waiting for the light to change, the laughter of the child down the street who walks by every day with his mom to say hi to the Dashwoods through the fence, the blue sky, the billowing clouds, the sound of rain, the dirt under my nails, the feel of yarn and knitting needles in my hands, the sweet-tart burst of flavor from the mulberries James and I foraged by the creek, the thoughts and ideas and connections that come from books and conversations and your comments, the grief I feel over the melting ice and the sixth extinction, and my struggle to embrace impermanence and change and uncertainty.
How do you want to be shaped? Who do you want to be? How do you want to shape the world? To who and what will you give your attention?