Attention can feel surprisingly spacious, almost boundless. It can be focused but also divided (multi-tasking, stress), and certainly it can be disrupted by various causes. Yet, ironically narrowing your focus liberates your mind from contesting ideas. The reel of thoughts that do not cease is interrupted either by the helpful power engine of mindful breathing techniques or the harmful storm of a shock. Either grabs our attention.
Advertising and digital mobile technology additionally contest for any available slice in your mind. It is a vicious cycle. Ads are more precisely targeted after you handed the online companies over your personal data, thus more tempting. Living in the age of distraction is stressful. Our attention span has been shortening significantly over the past decade with smartphones dreadfully fast outsmarting us.
The hangover from our information binge fogs the mind and sabotages attention. An abundance of psychology research reaffirms that attention works best when only one activity is mindfully taken on in the present moment. Doing more at the same time exhausts us and leads to more errors.
Attention as a voluntary focus on reality
The uninterrupted battering of information hails taxes the mind. To avoid errors, decreased productivity and dissatisfaction with life, we must regulate the flooding stream of thoughts. Rest is a good start. A proper break, silence and space. NOTHINGNESS.
As we try to combat distractions, meditation, mindfulness, yoga, qi-gong and martial arts are booming. The ancient Chinese and Indians have been using these happiness and longevity tools for millennia. Our will may force attention, but the easiest, most natural flow of liberating attention is spontaneous. As when you do something you truly enjoy. How hard is to stroll on a beach or to read a great book? It just happens and nothing easily distracts you. When overwhelmed by a city o life in general, try just sitting under a tree in the park, inhaling the free for all air.
Attention is the magnifying mirror of our consciousness, our true selves. Without its zoom we ignore the depth of things we see or think about. We miss perhaps essential details. Essentially, attention, bound with your attitude, is necessary for happiness. This is one of the reasons why humans across diverse cultures called up selective focus for millennia.
Evolutionary, our brains constantly seek new information. This anti-attentive mind design can benefit us as well as harm. For our advantage, we must develop our attention in order to thrive. Our contentment hangs on a positive outlook and awareness of our automatic responses.
Age of distractions: adapting to the disruptive environment
We live in an attention deficit culture. While the crisis of our ability to contemplate our actions prior bulletting them into the twittersphere cannot be blamed on technology alone, its ever present mobility adds to our chaotic state of mind. Further, as James Surowiecki warns in the New Yorker: “Overwork has become a credential of prosperity.” As we work 24/7 plugged into our devices the instant connectivity throws more distractions into any moment. Yet, to be productive, not quantity, but quality of work counts as more in the final equation. Long hours decrease productivity.
The global, interconnected society will pay for this lack of attention. We cause and become victims of accidents when distracted. Adam Gazzaley, neuroscientist and professor in neurology, physiology and psychiatry and Larry Rosen, professor emeritus of psychology in California write in The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World: “while in 2004 an estimated nationwide (US) 559 people had hurt themselves by walking into a stationary object while texting, by 2010 that number topped 1,500, and estimates predicted the number of injuries would double between 2010 and 2015.” That was then. Now selfie posturing kills Insta-stars as they headstand on cliffs, boisterously risking in their quest for more digital followers. Virtual causes of death are on the rise.
The business of temptiations
The foggy mind is getting cloudier. Human attention is constantly contested as if we were prey in the wild. Hunted by the admen, by numbers driven media and political campaigning, you are being emotionally manipulated into their agenda. With work and information consumption moving online, our focus is diverted from what we set up to do to buying unimportant stuff. Targeting us with campaigns that halo meaning is deceivingly vicious. Privacy is traded like gold and we sell it for simple small comforts.
Living in a society where influence and power without responsibility is not harshly penalised is dangerous. We should fear the era when intrusive website cookies and software and populists rule over our minds – well, this Orwellian dystopia is happening now.
Physiology of attention
Emotional targeting sensitised us to the point when our oversaturated brains become ignorant to almost anything requiring our emotional response. Psychologists all too often prescribe therapies for the ‘epidemic’ of the ADHD to restless kids. As if their fidgeting was something that the naturally newness seeking growing mind had not commonly experienced before the second millennium AD. In order to survive we had to seek food, shelter and water, but also any information about potential threats. The dopamine boost is a reward our brain washes into our body-mind system. Today, we see humans as having a disorder when their attention cannot be sustained. Not everyone was born to be a nerd, jewellery artist or a security camera watchman.
Monks, kings, soldiers, martial arts practitioners, weavers, knitters, artists, writers – anyone doing something that requires focus – have for ages worked on developing their sustained mind. Taosists, Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, … all included contemplation, prayer, or other form of meditation in their religious practices. Across classes, cultures, races and religions, we people searched for calm focus of the mind.
The many easy tools to improve our attention:
Unless, you are a hermit living away from the millennial society, you cannot escape the fate that “virtual and real worlds are near point of synthesis”, Paul Taylor wrote in the Financial Times already in 2013. Once machines communicate, they can be left alone to do their job. Then perhaps, we can devote our entire lives to paying attention to what is important. Although there are countless benefits of improved safety by reducing human error and simplifying our lives, as with any revolution it will continue to be a bumpy track. We must beware of becoming robotised. The recent launch of Google Duplex is a stark warning.
You do not have to give up the millennial lifestyle to immunise yourself from manipulation. We are lucky to still have choices (a friend even tattooed it on her wrist), the freedom of will and democracy. Do not get entangled in technology’s inevitable glitches before they are perfected. Being aware of where I need AI versus where my own brain and skills will do me good, is the decisive force for my happiness. We do less manually for convenience, yet we must be involved at least mentally.
Awareness protects you to see clearly, be open to all sides and to detach from the emotional whirl thrust upon you. Those in power or on their way to usurp it, know how to exploit our attention limits and manipulate us into their extreme views. Through clarity of awareness, we can detach ourselves from the emotional charge that marketing and political propaganda unleash.
By taking away most of attention-requiring activities from humans, technology widens the blank space in our mind. We need to find effective ways to train focus on daily basis. Deep attention is fundamental to our survival. No attention, no memory.
A distinctively human activity like hand washing dishes (Bill Gates does it) and walking for groceries or to work, can become our regular mindfulness training. I love cooking. Preparing a meal requires my full attention. Chopping, measuring, heating, baking, is all about precision. On weekends or creative days when I allow myself plenty of space in real time as well as in my mind, I flow in the process of recipe creation.
Life coaches and self-help literature commodified being in the now. Yet, you do not need to pursue complex strategies to stop ruminating and focus on what matters. In photography ‘having an eye’ and capturing it, means paying attention to one’s surroundings. Tobias Buck wrote after observing one of the most distinguished contemporary photographers Wolfgang Tillmans: “pictures – beautiful, meaningful, unforgettable pictures – can emerge when we least expect them, and in the most unlikely of places.” Selective attention can illuminate fundamental work that can only be realised now.
Breathe mindfully. Focus on the inhale, on how the cool air warms entering your nostrils, moving through the body’s cavities, expanding them. Imagine the Earth reaching like a beam of light through your limbs, out from your fingertips and toes to the space outside. According to the taoist philosophy, this is becoming one. In buddhist practice this is the union of the body with the mind (the goal of yoga) and the universe. Stop everything, experience the current pure existence and enter the state of “nonbeing”. Then, like a vacuum cleaner, the exhale sucks out the dirt, the tensions and pain. The monkey mind becomes pacified. Meditating monks seek this freedom from heavy emotions. Once you enter in, it is difficult to go back to the noise of daily life. This is a flash of nirvana or spiritual enlightening.
There is science behind this. Neurologically, focused, meditative breathing reverses the electric charge of neural pathways. Coltish fidgeting is swiped away into peaceful calm. By such focused breathing connection to the ‘essence’ of our existence, according to the taoist philosophy but also confirmed by recent research, we release emotional tensions through calming our nerves into smooth circulation of stimuli.
You need to disconnect in order to plug into the right socket. We must let go of something in order to invite in the needed. Attention is weak when we are tired. To be able to listen to yourself and clearly perceive the world you need mental energy. Lack of sleep, overwork, taxing and unhealthy environment, heavy meals and a mind burdened with worries do not leave much space for focus. As with any limited resource, an excess outflow empties the precious reservoir. Recharge regularly.
This dose-sensitive mindset also must be developed step by step over a regular period of time. If you drain yourself by overreaching, like trying to replicate a three Michelin star kitchen of 30 cooks by yourself when cooking at home, you will be discouraged from improving. On the other hand, a daily attentive session with yourself is like a delicious slice of cake, one bite will please only if you get another tomorrow.
Ultimately, where we put our attention should be connected to what matters. Instead of obsessing over the self-help literature’s costly tools, muse about what is important to you. Free from ego and outside manipulation, engage in a meaningful discourse with yourself. Then, your focus shifts where it should be – to knowing yourself and accepting who you are.
Some of the biggest tech minds like Steve Jobs use(d) meditation as a tool for creativity. Without focus consciousness is not being attended to and we are lost in the tearing past. Breakthroughs in science and creativity are lost in the present – future chaos. BODY SCAN meditation is an effective focus shifting tool and in my experience easier for beginners than the breath meditation I described further above.
Tech-detox is a buzzword taken seriously by social media bingers or voracious news browsers. Their awareness of it is a promising start. Attention like any addiction is broken by change. A shift in activity – inner (breath, thinking) or outer (silence versus noise) sharpens or disrupts focus. By disconnecting from their addictions and quieting one’s mind a person connects to herself. Technology, like food, cigarettes, drugs, running et al. is addictive, and we must realise when we slide into its sticky hands. Only then we can change.
Music whose wavelengths synchronise with our brainwaves can significantly assist our focus. I often work with acoustic music, but for someone else an absolute quietude or ramblings at a popular cafe work best. T Bone Burnett, A 13 Grammy Awards assembling composer, producer and songwriter alerts in an interview with The New York Times: “the electronic universe has been shrinking our attention spans for decades now. I want to crate periods of time where people can just sit in pure sound without stimulation, where we can allow ourselves to relax into pure sound.” Indeed, music is like breath. Its tone and pace quieten our mind or dishevel it.
What’s the most natural, easy way to improve your attention? I said it – nature – spending time in green environment, free from motors and abundant in bird songs, does magic. Ancient Chinese sages have taken their working hours in nature seriously. Nature is the source of creativity, it frees your mind from negative emotions and by organically resting, your tired brain regenerates to soak more in. Those weekend escapes to the countryside are about more than getting more space away from the urban noise.
Exercise shoots a similar boost to our attention. Ancient cultures embraced attention manipulating practices. In China tai-chi, qi-gong and martial arts, in Israel Krav Maga, in South America capoeira, but a mind clearing run or a bike ride can do.
Still, some tribes smoke or ingest natural drugs expanding their attention field and the West has been seeking mind-altering substances for centuries, but this may not be a sustainable route to contentment.
Without paying attention, we can miss a Nobel Prize-worth discovery, cut our finger, even lose our life or endanger others. By improving it you will sharpen your work, reduce stress, and boost your relationships. Through attention we get closer to truth, while in the lack of it, reality fizzes out into a cloud of ignorance. Neutralise all noise that disconnects you from what matters now.
Whirling in the vicious current of emotions, sinking deep, paddling up to the light of attention, we finally float on the Earth with an ease of a leaf dancing off from a tree.