Attention and Focus

If you drop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will of course frantically try to clamber out. But if you place it gently in a pot of tepid water and turn the heat on low, it will float there quite placidly. As the water gradually heats up, the frog will sink into a tranquil stupor, exactly like one of us in a hot bath, and before long, with a smile on its face, it will unresistingly allow itself to be boiled to death.

Version of the widespread anecdote from Daniel Quinn’s “The Story of B”

I have always been fond of my times of quiet contemplation and deep conversation with those dearest to me, the times where I can just be present and allow my mind to center on those things which which enrich my life and the lives of those around me. During such times my heart comes fully to rest. My mind is allowed to collect itself, to purge itself of the extraneous and inessential details which cloud the connection between it and my heart.

These times are real. They remind us of our humanity. They bring us closer to the world we center in meaningful, substantial ways. In this sense, attention and focus are sacred.

I would be the first to admit, however, that it is not easy to make the space necessary to “be” in this way in the world we live in today. We have, slowly but surely over the space of a few decades, moved out of a world where such moments were not only possible, but common and into a world where our attention is analyzed and commoditized to the point that the unthinking person does not stand a chance in the war for his or her attention.

When I am out and about and look around me, there is hardly a person – alone or in a group – who is not constantly looking down at some electronic device which connects him to a virtual world that would gladly devour the better part of his day while giving him little to nothing in return. Whether we are drawn in by a voracious appetite for information or an unacknowledged fear of missing out matters little, because in either case our attention is gradually funneled into less and less meaningful obsession (e.g. to the point that checking messages becomes reflexive and unconscious, even during conversation with others), and our relationships, mental and physical health suffer as a result.

The sad thing is that we don’t notice it happening. Like the frog in the pot being heated slowly, we unresistingly let this happen. What’s worse is that we not only let it happen, but we in many cases are the unwitting authors of our own distraction! It is easy to end up being producers as much as we are consumers of digital distraction – mechanically posting the lasted random thought (rarely original), juicy find (rarely true), or video clip (rarely gainful) – and as our online presence grows, we are amazed one day to discover that we have no time for quiet contemplation, for undistracted conversation and for deep connection with the things that truly matter.

I have no delusions that this is the first or will be the last assault on our attention, wellbeing and fulfillment. Neither am I against the use of technology. In fact, I believe that rightly used, such tools offer the convenience of connection in ways that have never before been possible. My hope is that we will find it in ourselves to be mindful of the investment we make using them so that we don’t lose one another in the process, so that our humanity is not burdened but enriched.

5 thoughts on “Attention and Focus

  1. David R

    With all the mesmerizing barrage of information that reaches us through so many means nowadays, one would think we would be better informed than we are! Alas, it seems that more is not more, in fact — we are woefully ignorant and misinformed in an era of seemingly unlimited communication and information access.

    How we invest our precious time is a subject worthy of much careful thought. Are we just swept up in the maelstrom of a desperate world, riding the roller coaster to its uncertain end? Or are we here to contribute from a place of serenity and rich meditation? I doubt that becoming a hermit is the answer, but a tranquil place that connects the rhythms of life to whatever contact points are available to us sounds about right!

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  2. Ernest

    One of the lessons that I have both experienced and seen throughout my life is the destructiveness of multi-tasking. Sadly, especially with all of the electronic gadgets that are available to us today, it seems to be epidemic. And also sadly, most of us wonder at the end of the day, week or month what happened to those moments where our entire attention should have been but wasn’t focused and instead we were busy multi-tasking. It is much more efficient, and enjoyable as well, to stay in the moment, giving this moment in time all that we have and then, when finished, move on to the next moment/project. That way do we not only finish rightly the things that we were entrusted to handle, but the experience is much more enjoyable and satisfying; we can actually take a moment in genuine appreciation instead of rushing into the next thing.

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  3. Coco

    This reminds me of the value of:
    A family dinner
    An evening stroll together
    A date night in a parked car
    A drive to school or practice
    A road trip or Sunday drive
    Holding hands
    Listening to a child’s view
    A conversation over coffee
    A glass of wine together
    Walking the dog
    Putting a child to bed
    Breakfast on a weekend morning
    Brunch with friends
    Daydreaming
    Meditation
    Nice post, thanks Gregg!

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  4. Lady Leo

    This slow death of communion with ourselves and those we hold dearest becomes the emptiness and void we so desperately seek to fill. It masquerades as loneliness or unfulfilled longing for something not attained or perhaps we think hasn’t been provided; when all along it is ourselves that has been the block to our own connection to it. I think technology has become the diversion of the moment but if you look back there seems always to be something similar. This one is unique in that it begins it’s occupation so early in life that the attention span required for the development of self communion is stunted at 5 or 6 and family communion will never develop as there is no model for it, or precedent. It’s so easily rationalized by it’s advantages, which I agree are many, that it’s able to acquire 100% buy in with little resistance. We can’t develop ourselves or dynamic relationships without physical interaction that includes spoken communication, listening and quiet space to think. Physical presence creates ranges in communion with each other that are undeniably precious in the development of interpersonal skills, sustainable attention and sharp focus. I really appreciate this post, thank you. It inspires me look at my life and see how I can be more fully present and commune on a level that allows the finest to develop in and around me.

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