How to Pay Attention (an Unofficial Guide)

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I have been trying to pay attention lately. Maybe you have, too. 

I’ve been thinking how attention has felt so different this past year than in any other year of my life. The pandemic—its monotony and its disruption—seemed to wreak havoc on my ability to pay attention. 

First, the monotony. Life in lockdown, for me and maybe for others, has made it frustratingly difficult to be distracted from whatever domestic and daily annoyances I have avoided addressing or resolving for the past thirty-some years. But the sudden rhythm of a quieter life meant those tensions—unresolved frustrations, unhealthy communication habits, unspoken hopes—have been harder to ignore. To my dismay, these daily realities kept coming up…like, every day. 

The monotony, the small annoyances, the work calls that always starts three minutes late, the creaking of that chair, the single dish my husband leaves in the sink at the end of the night, the rehearsed and transactional ways we move through the day to “get through them” instead of enjoy, delight, or bask in them—I worked hard to pay attention to all these habituated realities. 

I kept thinking of Ernest Hemingway, who said we must write “hard and clear about what hurts,” and wished to ask a follow-up question: sure, sir—but how are we to attend, hard and clear, to what bores? About midway through this past year, I realized that if you stare at monotonous realities for long enough, you may go cross-eyed*—a lesson we all learned ~the hard way~ from the back of the Teddy Grahams box back in the day. (*Or you might achieve enlightenment; in my case, it was the former.)

Where the monotony narrowed my field of vision, the disruptive nature of the pandemic seemed to zap my brain’s capacity to make any sense of whatever I was staring at.

Which leads me to part two: the disruption. For all the ways my attention has narrowed, more or less, to the things at hand, it has also felt, simultaneously, like I can’t quite focus on anything at all. Where the monotony narrowed my field of vision, the disruptive nature of the pandemic seemed to zap my brain’s capacity to make any sense of whatever I was staring at. Yes, I am still relying on the Teddy Grahams imagery. Go with it.

Attention fatigue. Exhaustion from the strain on my eyes and mind of focusing so long at the blurry sameness, trying to glean meaning from it day after day. Trying to attend to the things at hand despite the monotony and trying to attend to what matters most despite the disruption. 

Friends of mine in the medical profession (though it may very well be true in other roles) tell me they’ve been experiencing attention fatigue in an extreme way: such concentrated attending to the needs of others that when they’re finally “off” they all but collapse, as if holding their breath for the entirety of their shift. 

Others, many who are parents and working from home with small babes and tots, talk about feeling that their attention is completely diffuse: never once quite landing on a single object, idea, or person. Just flitting from one urgent scene to the next, with a mental list perpetually growing of things to do when the basket of laundry is set down and the timer goes off and the kids fall asleep (and so on). 

In addition to simply naming these things (in case the articulation can help you gauge where you or your loved ones are at), I want to share something that’s helped me figure out what to do about this attention fatigue. 

I was reading a book of essays by Simone Weil, a 20th-century mystic, activist, and philosopher, whose writing on attention puts this short reflection to absolute shame. But who’s judging. (Me, and maybe also Simone.) 

I am thinking about attention as a mental faculty that’s not just about cognitive understanding but about presence—not just looking at something but taking it in. And more importantly, that whatever I am trying to take in, I am also trying to be taken in by it.

She writes that “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.”

You don’t need to be the praying type to appreciate her point. When I think of attention as prayer I am thinking about attention as a mental faculty that’s not just about cognitive understanding but about presence—not just looking at something but taking it in. And more importantly, that whatever I am trying to take in, I am also trying to be taken in by it. Isn’t that what real focus feels like? A kind of deep attention to something that, over time, only absorbs us more? An activity, person, place, or idea that sustains our focus such that we don’t ever really finish finding meaning, no matter how long we attend to it?

When I read this essay from Weil in December, immediately I had a kind of gut knowledge of the kinds of activities that help me pay attention in this totally absorbed way: playing and writing. 

Specifically: playing with my toddler, and stream-of-consciousness writing, the kind that helps me process, name, remember, or vent about something that’s been rolling around inside me for a while. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still completely rare to feel myself paying attention well—but when I do, it’s when I’m doing these kinds of activities that allow me to take something in while also feel I am, myself, taken in by them. I think this must be part of what Simone Weil means by prayer. I think that’s why these acts feel sacred to me. I also think it begins to make sense of some of my attention fatigue this past year. I’m not sure, for all the attempts to pay attention, I was attending to the kinds of things that fill me up and make me feel present and rooted, rather than perpetually scattered.

I also think it begins to make sense of some of my attention fatigue this past year. I’m not sure, for all the attempts to pay attention, I was attending to the kinds of things that fill me up and make me feel present and rooted, rather than perpetually scattered.

I’d be curious—have you been experiencing differences in how, what, and whether you’ve been able pay attention well this year? What kinds of activities help you feel absorbed—and not just entertained or distracted (or productive, for that matter)—when you attend to them? What wisdom do you have for paying attention, whether you’re fatigued or filled up?

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