Attention is a like a muscle. If you don’t use it – or just imagine you are exercising while in fact you are not – it will atrophy. People who have an accident and are laid up in bed for an extended time say how quickly their muscles weaken. When they are able to get up at last, they find they can’t do the most ordinary things without great difficulty. The road back to mobility and health may be a long one and will certainly require regular exercise.
In our (at least until Corona) overloaded and distracted culture we can be so distracted that we don’t even know we are distracted. This state may last until we try to pay attention to something new and unwelcome such as a global crisis. It flies off the news sites into our families and daily lives as an inescapable disruption. The global invades the personal. The disaster movie we watched for entertainment becomes a chilling reality in urban lockdown, deserted streets and customers fighting for hand sanitisers. Who wants to pay attention to something as unpleasant as that?
Becoming obsessed with something – whether pleasant or distasteful – is not the same as paying attention. To be merely addicted or fixated is an extreme form of compulsive distraction. So, we may be glued to news updates during the day, most of which contain nothing new. Better to ration our intake of news. Stay in touch, keep informed but don’t binge as we do with most of the distractions we use to distract us from distraction.
We exercise a physical muscle by alternating contraction and release. Tighten, let go, tighten, let go. Gradually it becomes stronger and we can do more things with it. Similarly, with the muscle of attention, we find we are becoming more attentive in more and more aspects of our lives – to the people we are with, to our immediate environment, to the simple miracles of life – birdsong, cloud formations, the greening of the trees. These are not distractions, but they give us the variety of content we need to keep our minds healthily flexible, receptive and focused.
Attention that can’t remain on an object for long enough for us to appreciate it for itself – not just for what it gives me – slackens into distraction. It flits from sensation to sensation or endless browsing. Attention can focus and enjoy for the sake of delight or relationship; it can move across a spectrum of consciousness calmly. We move from thing to thing without panic or chaos. The variety is healthy and nutritious.
So, during these days when life has changed for us all, meditation is a great, simple, available way to rebuild our power of attention. Not that we sit and meditate 24 hours a day. But we build in the set times and find we can live in-between these times with more peace and appreciation of the beauty around us – and within us. Attention without a thought or image is pure prayer. But exercising it like this, at meditation times, means we can think, read, look, listen, touch and smell, the rest of the time, in a truly prayerful way.