The Poverty of Attention

Ever since I graduated college I witnessed my attention span decrease and my anxiety increase. Where as before I was able to sit at my desk typing away for hours on end (with the help of a cup of coffee or a can of red bull) unhindered by internet/phone/people distractions I now can’t sit at my desk for longer than half an hour without having to get up smoke a cigarette, throw my dog a ball, go to the bathroom, get a glass of water, reach for peanuts, stretch my body, smoke another cigarette, and chat on the phone. And while I am on the computer I constantly flip from tab to tab on firefox while checking email anytime I get the notice ring, check the calendar to see what I have to do 3 days from now, see what everyone else is doing on facebook every 10 minutes or so, look at their pictures, check my own pictures again, browse through iphoto to make sure I didn’t miss any pictures to post on facebook and scroll through itunes to decide what I should listen to. My once chronic panic disorder was spawned by an anticipatory anxiety of an attack that might occur sometime in the future. It was stirred by clouds, the sun setting and any claustrophobic situation such as getting on a crowded train between 1st ave and Bedford Ave on the L train. The “What if?” demons in my brain kept me frozen on the platform and didn’t allow me to step into the multiple passing trains. My brain is constantly on hyperactive mode thinking all the things I’ll need to do when I’m in front of my computer, all those shows I have to write about, all the pictures I have to put up, writing in my diary on Microsoft word, emails I have to respond to and all the email listings with events I have to update my calendar in. I am constantly overwhelming myself and often sit down and wonder where the fuck I am going to start. Then I spend hours organizing my to do list which is separated by “Now” “Later” and “Eventually”. With the help of Getting Things Done I now have a “Now” document that is 4 pages long broken down to categories such as blog writing topics, apt chores, and other projects that have have immediate steps that need to be taken. Once I’m done organizing my “Now” list, filtering my emails and clearing the piles of papers on my desk I’m exhausted and fused to actually start writing, especially if its going to be essay that is more than 500 words. I no longer have the ability to finish a book in a week let alone read an online article in its entirety carefully without skimming. The ADHD factor has consumed my life and I wonder all the time how many people out there are struggling with the hypersensitive information overload as much as me. Alot of the anxiety has been cured by yoga which I practiced 7 days a week and this book which changed my perspective and I learned to meditate, calming my brain and heart and building a more mindful and present state of mind. I’m always a step ahead of the present and if it weren’t for the meditation and yoga I’d be in the mental hospital, or highly dosed on tranquilizers.

There was a really interesting but not too informative article in NY Mag recently called In Defense of Distraction speaking about my conundrum exactly and I was very relieved to know I’m really not the only one and it’s actually a disease of sorts. It states the problem of attention is an epidemic that’s hit all factors of our culture and there are many of us looking toward self-help movements and yoga to cure this poverty of attention. The ability for our brains to adapt to the information storm and multi-task is constantly being challenged and is actually causing retardation. Attention is a “complex process that shows up all over the brain, mingling inextricably with other quasi-mystical processes like emotion, memory, identity, will, motivation, and mood.” An overloaded brain when forced to multitask makes it very difficult to successfully remember whatever it is you’re doing. The crisis of attention is a “full-blown epidemic-a cognitive plague that has the potential to wipe out an entire generation of focused and productive thought”. Its a scary thought and difficult to realize because its not tangible, its an abstract illness that can be easily ignored. Apparently multi-tasking is a myth, you’re never doing two things simultaneously, just rapidly switching between them, leaking efficiency in between. The only time it works is when the tasks operate on entirely different channels: language, visual, auditory, etc. Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt classifies two types of attention: the bottom up attention is “the broad involuntary awareness that roams the world constantly looking for danger and rewards’ while top down attention is “the narrow, voluntary focus that allows us to isolate and enhance some little slice of the world while ruthlessly suppresing everything else.” The latter is exactly what I’m doing now. I’ve spent the last few hours taking one task at a time and consciously ignoring everything else like filtering the emails and organizing my to do list which I usually do on a OCD level. If you practice this top down attention approach and focus on positive, productive things you’ll be happier about your stance and experience. “The ability to positively wield your attention comes off as something of a panacea…the sine qua non of the quality of life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience…our moment by moment choice of attentional targets determines, in a very real sense, the shape of our lives.” The attentional discipline of meditating buddhists focusing on compassion and loving-kindness show the ability to multi-task on a superhuman level. This means that attention is improved or maintained by how motivated and happy we are.

So what did I get out of this article? Well, for one thing it was a reminder that I have CHOICE to focus and gear my attention on whatever it is I want to spend time on. I can make a conscious choice to spend the next 20 minutes doing nothing but writing a post and not be bogged down by thinking about that stupid boy who’s actually been consuming my thoughts nonstop for days. There is a mantra I repeated during my meditation practice and whenever I felt a panic attack coming along and it comes from the Path with Heart book: “May I be filled with loving-kindness, May I be well. May I peaceful and at ease. May I be happy.” Also, “Learn to let go and allow the changing mysteries of life move through you without you fearing it, without holding and grasping”. In essence, let go and let pass these distractions and focus on one task, one moment at a time.

Here’s a funny story that relates to this post. Read it.

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