Clearly, the level of conscious attention in daily life in the world is dropping. You give an order at a restaurant or deliver information to someone, clearly and concisely, and in their reply they ask a question about it, blatantly not having listened to what you said a few seconds before. Some people may not have enough attention even to notice that the other person wasn’t paying attention. That is particularly worrying as the ensuing conversation resembles that between two mentally disturbed people who are so isolated in their own imaginative worlds that they cannot listen to or see anything outside it. They end by speaking at others not to them.
This chronic inattention in our world exposes the lunacy of over-action and excessive mental stimulation. We feel compelled to do many things simultaneously even though it is obvious that multi-tasking damages the quality of the outcomes of what we are doing. Behind this compulsion may be the desire to escape from reality, avoiding difficult truths. Or, perhaps, anxious competitiveness and the fear that others, by doing more than us, will make us look second-rate or losers. The first thing that goes then is the joy of work and the satisfaction of creation. We become merely doers, measuring quantity and covering up our shortcomings and inattention with jargon and, of course, ever more low-quality work.
Naturally the amount of activity that we can do, without losing sanity and attention, will vary – from person to person and according to external factors. Some thrive best on a busy life. St Benedict said idleness is the enemy of the soul and was the first great consultant on time-management, scheduling each day in order to get things done in a balanced and enjoyable way. But he knew that some are slower, which does not mean duller, than others and that community (a good team) must accommodate many kinds of personality.
When a monk is praying his office there are many texts that he knows by heart. He doesn’t need to read them from the page. But this means he can easily drift into multi-tasking. While repeating the Benedictus in the morning, he suddenly realizes he has lost the thread of the lines because he has started to plan the day or solve a problem or even think of the next Lenten reading. This is the cue to start again, to go back and repeat the Benedictus from the beginning. Perhaps the spiritual value of the exercise is more in strengthening his own power of attention than in telling God what God already knows.
Simone Weil learned the mantra in this way. She set herself to repeat the Pater Noster regularly with absolute attention. As soon as her mind drifted she would return to the beginning. This is the basis for her insight that the essence of prayer is not intention but attention.
Prayer is not only an explicitly religious action. A waiter taking an order at a table on a busy night is turning his work into prayer if he listens, gets it right and delivers the right food to the right person. And the tip he gets may reflect this, provided the customer was attentive enough to notice it.