The power of attention to transform, or to take us down the wrong rabbit hole
Yesterday afternoon I was sitting on a rocky jetty close to the small coastal town of Florence, Oregon. I'd driven over that morning, as my Hump Day had a VA appointment smack in the middle, and so decided instead to spend Tuesday and the night on a rainy, misty day.
It was cold, in the forties, with plenty of wind. Because I'm a wimp, I load up with down pants, a Goretex shell and two coats as well as battery-operated gloves. I have Reynaud's, which any sufferer can attest, makes being in cold, wet, windy conditions about as miserable as it gets. The investment in the gloves is transformative, and ensures that my long beach walks are pleasant.
South of me I saw a woman with a small brown and white dog with distinctive ears. A Basenji. Jackie, his owner, was delighted I recognized the breed, and we ended up taking a long, lovely walk together with her dog trotting in all directions around us.
Jackie, her Basenji and I left the well-marked 96A spot (so that you can find your car again, thank you Oregon Coast) and wandered to the jetty. I'd seen it in the distance but never come this far south.
I learned that Jackie, who was my age, was a very early Internet adopter. She instantly charmed her husband to-be when they met at someone else's wedding. Apparently he immediately fell in love when she uttered the words,
Let's go talk modems.
You cannot make this stuff up. I nearly fell in the surf laughing. She was delightful. That is THE best pickup line ever for nerds.
We parted company where the jetty stretched its rocky fingers out to sea. Her car was parked beneath the lookout, and the area was dotted with driftwood sculptures.
Jackie and her Basenji had my full attention for about an hour. We took a long, lovely stroll on the damp beach, listening to her discuss her early days before the Internet, living in Sacramento, the eight Basenjis before this one.
You learn a lot when you attend. But it depends on where you and I place our attention. Meanwhile my phone, brought along for the sole purpose of photographs, sat quietly in my coat pocket until Jackie hiked off across the dunes to her car.
When we give our full and undivided attention to another human being, in that way we are listening with our full selves and not waiting breathlessly to pounce in and make OUR points, those moments are transformative. Not only do they stretch out time, for the simple fact that we are exploring something new and not simply engaging in repetitive activity (the brain loves boredom and easy ways out of work), but our full attention engages so much more of the self in the moment.
That is precisely what Silicon Valley wants of you and me: our full attention. For when we are perpetually nose-to-glass on a device, we are fully owned, and a slave to whatever is on the screen.
This New Yorker article caught my eye yesterday, and underscores my point:
This quote really struck me:
“I can’t stop thinking about this” suggests a state of constant vigilance and the difficulty of distinguishing what’s actually important from the general tsunami of information pouring through our feeds.
Precisely. The fact that we are pouring OUR attention into our feeds speaks to the loss of life, time and delight that each of us is experiencing all day every day, as more and more of us spend up to eleven hours every single day attached to some kind of device.
What is NOT getting your attention? Hmmm. Let's see.
Your partner, spouse, kids, dogs, cats.
Your personal development, spiritual development, emotional development.
Chores, writing that Great American Novel, that lost list of projects that keeps growing.
I could go on.
When you and I paste our face to the screen, life goes scrolling by why we scroll, our development is arrested while we get outraged.
If you really want to feel outrage, how about outrage at how Silicon Valley steals our time, life and development to sell us stupid shit, cause us terrible emotional harm?
Let me share something that got my attention this morning:
I spent the night in a small highway hotel in Florence last night. It was clean, crisp, nothing special. What I didn't know was that when I woke up and headed north I would find yet another gem, access to a different part of the magnificent dunes that I have come to adore.
The morning mists cleared and misted again, and I climbed a steep dune to discover a deserted beach. There, I watched the rising sun splash the sky with darting rainbows. As the onshore winds blew the showers in, I watched the rollers get lit, go dark, and the skies above them shimmer with all the colors the Universe can deliver. The role of my phone was to record so that I could share with you where my attention was this morning.
Now that was special.
And one hell of a lot more worthwhile than focusing my face into my device.
Before I left the motel, I read the following from The Marginalian:
Maria Popova quotes Simone Weil:
We have to try to cure our faults by attention and not by will.
The will only controls a few movements of a few muscles, and these movements are associated with the idea of the change of position of nearby objects. I can will to put my hand flat on the table. If inner purity, inspiration or truth of thought were necessarily associated with attitudes of this kind, they might be the object of will. As this is not the case, we can only beg for them… Or should we cease to desire them? What could be worse? Inner supplication is the only reasonable way, for it avoids stiffening muscles which have nothing to do with the matter. What could be more stupid than to tighten up our muscles and set our jaws about virtue, or poetry, or the solution of a problem. Attention is something quite different.
Pride is a tightening up of this kind. There is a lack of grace (we can give the word its double meaning here) in the proud man. It is the result of a mistake.
You and I cannot force change by sheer will; as any obese person can attest, and I have been one. We have to change where we attend. And while you and I might have to wrest our attention away from that black rectangle, what we learn when we focus elsewhere is far more important, valuable and beautiful than anything we can find online, short of someone's loving acknowledgment of our intrinsic worth.
To that then, more Weil:
Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.
Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.
If we turn our mind toward the good, it is impossible that little by little the whole soul will not be attracted thereto in spite of itself. (author bolded)
You can see why I throw money at The Marginalian. Borrowing her brilliance, which she curates from other brilliant people, makes me look smart (I'm not) and allows me to make better points.
What we attend, grows, just like any potted plant or particular petty pity party. What we attend can become outsized, out of proportion.
Which is why what we choose to attend to speaks volumes about us.
I climbed back to the top of the dune with the rising sun at my back. The rainbow morphed, expanded, grew, and the soft, misty showers approached. the rainbow got bigger and closer.
Then finally, my glasses misted over, the rain and the rainbow embraced me, and I became the rainbow.