Whether your children or grand-children or sweetie or spouse. They want, need and deserve your undivided focus.
Whether to the current Presidential campaign, (if you live in the U.S. and are able to vote, certainly.)
Whether to the people around you on the road as you drive — no texting!
Whether as you walk around your city or town, playing Pokemon Go or reading something on your phone, forcing everyone else to dodge you.
Whether you leave your grocery cart sprawled in the middle of a parking lot because…be considerate.
Whether you yammer away in a public, shared space on your cellphone reallyloudly, Face-timing or speaking to someone.
Whether — as someone did yesterday in our small, congenial town several times — you open a cafe door into a cool, air-conditioned space — carelessly leaving the door wide open to the 90-degree-plus air outside, as you enter and exit.
Utterly oblivious to the needs of those around you.
Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging. Lately, our self-appointed disrupters have opened up a new frontier of capitalism, complete with its own frontier ethic: to boldly dig up and monetize every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention. In the process, we’ve sacrificed silence — the condition of not being addressed. And just as clean air makes it possible to breathe, silence makes it possible to think.
What if we saw attention in the same way that we saw air or water, as a valuable resource that we hold in common? Perhaps, if we could envision an “attentional commons,” then we could figure out how to protect it.
The sad state of this commons is on display everywhere.
In the summer of 2011, just before Jose and I got married, he took me off to an eight-day silent Buddhist retreat.
My friends, knowing how chatty I am, figured that would be essentially impossible.
But the greatest gift of the retreat was not having to pay attention.
We were told, all 75 of us from around the world assembled in an upstate New York monastery, that if someone looked at us, we did not have to look at them, smile at them or even acknowledge their presence at all.
We were not there for that.
It was the greatest freedom I’d ever felt.
As I wrote then:
I just don’t want to know half the things that total strangers feel somehow compelled to tell me.
(How about you?)
Many times I’ve been chided here for being “unfriendly”, and in so doing breaking the social rules everyone else follows so obediently, when it’s never been my personal goal to be friendly. I choose my friends and intimates very carefully. I don’t need or want everyone to like me. The idea, in fact, somewhat horrifies me.
A journalist since college, I’m professionally skilled at creating brief and powerful intimacy. I love that it requires me to win the confidence of strangers, of all ages and kinds, from convicted felons to elected officials (sometimes in the same person!) But it does mean I spend an inordinate amount of time making sure they feel comfortable with me, and will share with me as much as possible in the limited amount of time we have, whether by email, phone or face to face.
To not interact, to not have to manage my facial expressions or smile to cheer someone up who appears down or reassure them I am not down myself, is a release.
By the end, we were deeply reluctant to return to the incessant noise and chatter of Western life. Jose and I went to a local restaurant, and sat at the bar…where we were bombarded visually and auditorily, by three huge television screens.
It was weird and disorienting and exhausting.
When did silence become such a terrifying concept?
Do you treasure silence and disconnection as much as I do?
Loved this post, from one of my new favorite blogs, key + arrow, written by a young couple in Austin, Texas. This, from georgia, on the sensual, slow-moving pleasure of shaving, old-style:
I use an old style safety razor..the kind your grandpa may have used. A big heavy piece of chrome and a single double sided blade.
Once I found myself in the position of trying to explain why I prefer to use this older style to a friend of mine. He’s like most guys these days and use whatever 4 blade vibrating head gel strip gizmo they have selling these days.
As i described the process involved in preparing for a proper shave, the pleasure, the advantages….one item provoked the strongest reaction.
He couldn’t understand why I took up to 20 minutes or more to shave and that’s really when it hit me. When you look at the rise of technology and the death of manly rituals, inevitably the clock is to blame. We have sacrificed a whole host of simple pleasures for the sake of time and we are ultimately the poorer for it.
The pipe gives way to the cigarette. The ocean liner gives way to the airplane. The restaurant becomes the drive-through and the conversation becomes the text message…and all because we, as society, continue to believe that if we could just save a bit more time in our day we’d be able to really get to the things we wanted to do.
Ironically, in the pursuit of having enough time to do what we want we are forced to dilute or discard the very things we wanted in the first place…
While it’s easy for city folk to romanticize oldey-timey hand-hewn rusticity — who really wants to chop (all their) wood and haul their water? — I agree with his point of view.
One of the things that vacation reminds me to do — and I always, eagerly, do it wholeheartedly — is mostly ignore technology and its pinging, ringing, buzzing, beeping, dinging, lit-up demands.
Or else, what, exactly?
Unless you’re a head of state or awaiting the news of someone’s imminent birth or death, is anything really that urgent?
There is something so lovely and soothing and sensual about slowing down and doing things with a measured, thoughtful, focused attention.
Twice on our recent vacation in Canada, I simply lay down for a good half hour or more, once on the mossy edge of a granite lake-side and once on the smooth, rounded grey stones of another lake. I watched dragonflies and ants and small leopard frogs and got up again with pine-cone gum embedded in my leggings.
I also emerged completely refreshed.
You can’t really speed up the making of risotto, one of my favorite time-consuming recipes. Nor can you quickly and enjoyably make bread or soup or pastry or bathe a baby or give someone a really good massage or arrange flowers or stare into the night sky.
All of these activities take time.
They require our attentiveness. They can’t be rushed, without spoiling the experience.
Which is, in my view, the whole point of the blessing of our senses. If you don’t stop to even notice the roses, how can you make time to bury your nose in those pink or orange or creamy white petals and smell them?
Do you really want to rush patting your dog or cat? Hugging your sweetie?
One of my favorite books on this topic is by a fellow Canadian, Carl Honore, a fellow alum of the national newspaper, The Globe and Mail.
Here’s his 2005 TED talk in praise of slowness, the subject of his book of the same name; he was prompted to write the book when he found he couldn’t slow down at bedtime when he read to his small boy, tempted to do it at his usual frenzied pace.
In his talk, he says:
“We live in a world obsessed with speed…to quote Carrie Fisher, these days, even instant gratification takes too long…We’re hurrying through our lives instead of living them.”
It was the end of the day, time to go for my walk along our town’s reservoir.
It’s a walk I’ve made dozens of times, in every season, for many years, along an asphalt path shaded by towering trees, the reservoir on one side, filled with ducks and swans and turtles. People come there to fish, or sit, or jog.
Cyclists whiz past.
But for…a trick of the light.
If you’re in the right place at just the right moment, and you’re paying attention — not yammering on your cellphone or texting or racing past — you’ll see stuff.
A deer. A small black turtle. Some ripe raspberries.
And there, shimmering in the early evening sunshine, was a huge spiderweb, as big — I measured — as the entire size of my hand, from base of my palm to the end of my middle finger, seven inches.
It was spectacular!
It was attached, with multiple strands, to the thick bark of a tree, as if, like some bivouacking mountain-climber, s/he’d decided to latch on and dangle. There were multiple attachment points, and then the web itself, with so many concentric circles I couldn’t count them all — 20?
In the center sat a very small brown spider, (probably exhausted!), perhaps half the size of my smallest fingernail. Even better, there were about five other, smaller webs nearby, sort of a spider condominium, each with its own spider. (Relatives? Tenants? Guests?)
I stood there for a few minutes, awestruck by the skill, artistry and the spontaneous beauty it brought to the end of my day.
What on earth could I possibly make of such delicate strength?
It’s been said we now live in an age of CPA — “continuous partial attention” — as everyone texts and tweets and IMs and scans their Blackberry in the middle of a first date or a funeral. Writes tech expert Linda Stone, who says she created the phrase:
Continuous partial attention is an always on, anywhere, anytime, any place behavior that creates an artificial sense of crisis. We are always in high alert. We are demanding multiple cognitively complex actions from ourselves. We are reaching to keep a top priority in focus, while, at the same time, scanning the periphery to see if we are missing other opportunities. If we are, our very fickle attention shifts focus. What’s ringing? Who is it? How many emails? What’s on my list? What time is it in Bangalore?
In this state of always-on crisis, our adrenalized “fight or flight” mechanism kicks in. This is great when we’re being chased by tigers. How many of those 500 emails a day is a TIGER? How many are flies? Is everything an emergency? Our way of using the current set of technologies would have us believe it is.
Over the last twenty years, we have become expert at continuous partial attention and we have pushed ourselves to an extreme that I call, continuous continuous partial attention. There are times when cpa is the best attention strategy for what we’re doing; and, in small doses, continuous partial attention serves us well. There are times when cpa and ccpa compromises us.
The “shadow side” of cpa is over-stimulation and lack of fulfillment. The latest, greatest powerful technologies are now contributing to our feeling increasingly powerless. Researchers are beginning to tell us that we may actually be doing tasks more slowly and poorly.
To look someone in the eye and give them our undivided attention for minutes, maybe hours, at a time seems now as quaint, and wearying and unlikely, as chopping wood to heat your house or hauling water from a well for every bath.
Attention is our most valuable resource. That you are taking, making, the time to read this sentence is — for me — an honor. I know there is no greater gift than that of attention.
A mother, nursing her baby. The hospice worker, adjusting an oxygen line or morphine drip. Great sex. Helping your kid learn to play piano or bunt or make an omelette. That’s one on one time. Focused attention. It builds trust. It’s intimate.
Here’s my question.
When someone blogs clearly to get a lot of attention, millions of hits and shrieking arguments and name-calling and links and fist-waving, what do you, the reader, perceive as their goal? What is its value?
From my side of the computer screen — however fun it all is for you and me and all those other bloggers and their readers — the attention of thousands of strangers (unless you’re supporting yourself, as some do, exclusively through blogging) will not pay your mortgage or student loan or drive you to the hospital or make your dinner or laugh at your jokes.
Is it simply the ego thrill that people are actually listening to you? Talking to you and about you to one another?
What real, essential difference does this make, to the blogger and to their readers? Is it the creation — or consolidation of — (new) community?
Or (fogey that I am) is the whole point simply to be watched/listened to/admired/quoted/linked?
Are we so starved now for anyone’s undivided attention in any form? (Clearly, yes, as reality television seems to prove. Do you really want to be known and remembered and memorialized for appearing on “Wife Swap”?)
And why are we, then, unwilling to give it?
I value connection more than attention. To sit across a table or sofa or bedside with someone I know well and who knows me or who’s taking the time to get there, a deeper relationship a valuable destination, as I am.
It takes a long time, if you are in fact at all private, as some of us (even bloggers) still are, to slowly and respectfully unpeel the onion of someone’s personality and character. It took two friends of mine many years to confess, tearfully and fearfully, that each had been sexually abused as a child, or another, to tell me he is gay. It takes time and trust. A pearl is created slowly by accretion, layer upon layer of nacre finally producing something lovely and gleaming and precious.
I fear we’re becoming diamonds — or worse cubic zirconia — all hard and shiny, glittery things merely reflecting back to one another the shiny, polished side(s) we deem more marketable or publicly appealing. More eyeballs!
Without deeper connection, which only attention can spark and nurture, (think of a really great date), what are we doing? Or is ongoing, attentive connection now simply too…tedious?