‘To pray is to pay attention’

CNU professor reflects on modern classroom challenges

~Jason Carney, CNU Professor~

In Winifred Gallagher’s memoir, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life, she asserts, “The skillful management of attention in the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships.” Indeed. Attention is a powerful resource and it is finite. And what we spend it on clarifies what we value, for as poet W.H. Auden reminds us: “To pray is to pay attention.” 

But how do we “skillfully manage” our attention today, steeped, as we all are, in this digitally-saturated culture Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, characterizes as prohibiting such thrift: “The influx of competing messages that we receive whenever we go online not only overloads our working memory; it makes it much harder for our frontal lobes to concentrate our attention on any one thing”? Alas, when Carr wrote The Shallows, nine years ago, our lives consisted of discrete “on” and “offline” experiences. Arguably, with exponentially more powerful smartphones, we are always online now, our minds always gripped by the pull of those enthralling squares of phantasmagoric light.

Stripped of their contemporary costuming, however, Gallagher’s insights and Carr’s concerns are not new. Philosophers, artists and poets have acknowledged the power of attention and the risk of unrestrained distraction for centuries. Here are a few apropos examples. In agreement with Gallagher, Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius writes, “Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.” 

And sharing Carr’s concern about the decline of opportunities for silent contemplation, Romantic poet William Wordsworth reflects, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, / Getting and spending we lay waste our powers; / Little we see in Nature that is ours; / We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!” Both Roman and Romantic agree: the key to happiness is attention and misery is a consequence of attending to the wrong things, a dynamic insight expressed concisely by John Milton’s in Paradise Lost: “The mind is its own place and in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

As a professor, it feels like I have my finger on the pulse of my student’s attention, and, with respect, the pulse seems to flutter of late. I don’t blame my students alone, for we all share responsibility, and conditions sometimes conspire against us. The world is changing, it will continue to change, and we must adapt. As regards attention, soberly acknowledging the challenge is necessary: to paraphrase Wordsworth, we are giving our attention away for unworthy remuneration. We need to get it back, and deliberately seeking solitude is the first step. 

In this regard, I find nourishment in the stories of our great contemplatives, defenders of solitude, attention and their imbricated power: Buddha sitting beneath the Bodhi tree, Moses climbing Mount Sinai, Jesus withdrawing into the wilderness, Grandmother Spider journeying into the East. In these stories, enlightenment, justice, compassion and healing are the boons of attention well spent. 

Never forget: attention is a valuable resource. Spend it wisely. Find some solitude, turn off your phone and pay attention to the right things. The hospitality of the curious world might surprise.

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