Navigating Attention: Some Writers & Thoughts on Non-Distraction
Attention as a concept and a practice has lately been capturing my...attention. We often think of attention as our ability to focus on something specific, for a prolonged period of time, giving that object (whether tangible or immaterial) the full force and scope of our mind, body, and spirit. But usually, and more recently, we notice attention by feeling its lack: our distraction, scattered focus, the multiplicity of directions and objects calling for our notice, thought, and action.
I have noticed this lack in myself lately, and have wondered why it happens, and why it bothers me so much. I know how it happens (hello, devices and accounts!), but why should the technology matter more than it has historically? Why should I concern myself with the multiplicity of focal points in my world? As L. M. Sacasas asks below, What is attention for?
Each of the following writers and stories help me nuance that question and journey through (and toward) answers. It seems like attention is the kind of skill and habit that undergirds others, and makes us better able to appreciate our growth in virtues (and even the identification of such virtues in the first place).
Writer Simone Weil, referenced in a couple of these essays, suggests that pure and focused attention is a form of generosity, and prayer. By giving our time, body, and spirit to others, to ourselves, to the Divine, to creating and generating our work in the world, we give shape and heft and significance to our lives, and invest meaning to the connections we form with one another. In giving attention, in practicing non-distraction, we recognize what is true, important, and valuable.
As the Daoist story “The Woodcarver” illuminates, this takes work: to recognize what already exists, to call things by their true name, their true shape - this requires careful, intentional, regular labor. But if we discern what ought to call our attention, perhaps the labor will be as simple and as joyful as putting out our hand, and simply begin
Attending to the World, L. M. Sacasas
As I see it, there is a critical question that tends to get lost in the current wave of attention discourse: What is attention for? Attention is taken up as a capacity that is being diminished by our technological environment with the emphasis falling on digitally induced states of distraction. But what are we distracted from? If our attention were more robust or better ordered, to what would we give it? Pascal had an answer, and Weil did, too, it seems to me. I’m not so sure that we do, and I wonder whether that leaves us more susceptible to the attention economy. [...]
As I’ve suggested before, may be the problem is not that our attention is a scarce resource in a society that excels in generating compelling distractions, but rather that we have a hard time knowing what to give our attention to at any given moment.
The Uncanny Gaze of the Machine, L. M. Sacasas
One of the assumptions I bring to my writing about attention is that we desire it and we’re right to do so. To receive no one’s attention would be a kind of death. There are, of course, disordered ways of seeking attention, but we need the attention of the other even if only to know who we are. This is why I recently wrote that “the problem of distraction can just as well be framed as a problem of loneliness.” Digital media environments hijack our desire to be known in order to fuel the attention economy.
Habits of Mind in an Age of Distraction, Alan Jacobs
This [...] reminds me of something the comedian Louis C.K. said a few years ago, in an appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show. Louie, as his friends call him, was explaining that he doesn’t want his kids to have cell phones because he wants them to be sad. And sadness comes when you are forced to be alone with your thoughts: “That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there. That’s being a person.”
He described a day when he was driving along as an emotionally intense Bruce Springsteen song came on the radio, and he started to feel a certain melancholy welling up in him, and his instant response to that melancholy was to want to grab his phone and text someone. “People are willing to risk taking a life and ruining their own, because they don’t want to be alone for a second,” he said.
But on that day when, in his car, Louie felt the melancholy welling up, he resisted the temptation to grab his phone. As the sadness grew, he had to pull over to the side of the road to weep. And after the weeping came an equally strong joy and gratitude for his life. But when we heed that impulse to grab the phone and connect with someone, we don’t allow the melancholy to develop, and therefore can’t receive the compensatory joy. Which leaves us, Louie says, in this situation: “You don’t ever feel really sad or really happy, you just feel . . . kinda satisfied with your products. And then you die. And that’s why I don’t want to get phones for my kids.”
attending to the other, Jasmine Wang
Weil was part of a particular lineage of ethical psychology that conceptualized the ethical agent as a witness; the primary responsibility is not to change the world but to understand, in contrast with the Humean lineage that describes the ethical agent as an actor, whose primary responsibility is to change the world. It was nontrivial, however, to achieve the sort of clear perception she spoke of; among other things, it required an integrated character.
Witnessing and attending sound passive, but it is far from easy to achieve clear perception, to truly and deeply see.
This practice feels urgent. Weil believed that simple attention was required for moral attention, which was required for empathy, which was required for ethical action. We are unable to act ethically towards that which we have not first attended to; this includes other humans, but also the non-human other. The art of attention requires, among other things, an openness to being moved and transformed, the development of language, and the resistance of algorithmic life.
“By this time all thought of your Highness
And of the court had faded away.
All that might distract me from the work
Had vanished. I was collected in the single thought
Of the bell stand.
“Then I went to the forest
To see the trees in their own natural state.
When the right tree appeared before my eyes,
The bell stand also appeared in it, clearly, beyond doubt.
All I had to do was to put forth my hand
Let’s be hopeful, creative, and wise — together.