How to Pay Attention

Much of life is about paying attention. If you take in as much of what is happening around as you can, there is likely to be something in that fire hose of information that is useful, requires your care, or that surprises you. By paying attention to what’s going on around us, we can deflect the dreariness of settled habits and routines and set off in new directions.

Paradoxically, our ability to pay attention is inhibited by the culture of distraction in which we all now live—the ubiquitous pinging devices and saturated advertising of online media, a flood of messages designed to capture and arrest our attention rather than enhance it. What’s the difference between virtuous paying attention and succumbing to the attention magnets of online media? Online media discourages focus. Focus is the engine that makes attention meaningful. Noticing something matters only if we attend to it long enough for it to make a difference. Social media doesn’t encourage that. We no sooner attend to something then we are immediately directed to something else before our attention can plant roots and sprout genuine care. It comes at us with no sense of importance or the setting of priorities.

Because paying attention requires focus, we must filter the information we receive, since to pay attention to everything simultaneously is impossible. The question is how the parameters of that filter are set and who decides. The constant stream of messages from media of all sorts disrupts focus because there is no value scheme associated with it or, if there is, it is not one that we choose.

But there is another paradox here. The value scheme of online media is directed at our desires. What we see on Facebook, Tik Tok, Twitter, or Instagram is driven by data mining that “infers” our interests from our activity. Thus, we’re being distracted by things we ostensibly want. The problem is that it’s directed at inchoate desires reflected in what we click on, not what we genuinely care about or would pursue if we deliberated or had to expend more time and energy on it. Clicking is easy and the desires that clicking is a proxy for are the least filtered of our motives. It’s someone else’s agenda hijacking the power of our desires for their own ends.

Information gurus tell us we can better manage our attention by controlling our devices and who we interact with in our environment whether online of offline. But there is danger here as well. When we’re more intentional about how we manage distractions, we stick more closely to our own agenda and thus we lose one of the great benefits of paying attention to what goes on around us—the ability to get out of our settled habits and familiar routines. We can be so intentional that we’re tripped up by our own limits which inhibits our creativity.

The only solution to this is to let your mind wander. A wandering mind is your imagination and unconscious at work; neither operates via intentions only. But find your own mechanisms of release from intentions, not the command of random fools on social media.

Published by Dwight Furrow

Wine, food, and travel writing, philosophy, aesthetics

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