Attention Is Not A Neutral Force

Attention Is Not A Neutral Force

Mount Baldy (I think) rising over the Cal Poly Pomona campus.

I found this sentence in my Notes: “Attention is not a neutral force.”

There was no other information. I heard this in a podcast or read it in a book or saw it in a magazine and I wrote it down without any more details. I was, at the time, almost certainly thinking about blogging about it.

So I’m blogging about it.

If you’ve read this blog, you know that I’m mostly concerned with maximizing happiness and productivity. Attention is the key to both these things.

In fact, this sentence expresses the core of my beliefs about life. Where we choose to focus our attention gives us our life. I know, for example, that if I pay attention to the current political situation, I feel helpless and angry. If I pay attention to the people in my life that I love I feel happy and grateful. Here’s a better, more mundane example. In an hour or so I am going to drive to Pomona to teach my class. At 10:30 the drive takes about 40 minutes. If I concentrate on the traffic, (in Southern California there is always traffic, even at 3:22 in the morning) I will have a different experience than if I focus on the beautiful snow-covered mountains I’m going to be driving toward.

It’s not just happy horseshit “look on the bright side,” (or maybe it is, actually) it’s also a recognition that while pain and cruelty and inconvenience is unavoidable, suffering is optional. I know from years of Zen meditation that the present moment is full of bliss and the endless voice in my head, which is always reliving the past or fantasizing about the future, is mostly a swamp of anguish. Obviously, it’s better to take joy in life so it’s better to pay attention to things that bring you joy Those things can be as simple as the flight of a bird or the sound of your own breath.

Attention is also the key to productivity. We live in a distraction economy where the biggest companies in the world are spending billions to grab and hold your attention. It’s easy as hell to spend a day or a week or a year being entertained or distracted by Facebook, Youtube, Netflix and Words With Friends. If I want to get anything done I have to consciously DIRECT my attention.

This Is Water

Having said all this, I wanted to find out where this sentence came from so I Googled it and came across this amazing speech by David Foster Wallace. Infinite Jest is one of my favorite books and I love Wallace’s writing. This speech is hands down the best commencement speech I’ve ever heard/read and a better explanation of my own way of looking at the world than anything I’ve ever written myself.

“But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving…. The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.” -David Foster Wallace

So read or listen to this. I’ve got a couple loved ones graduating from High School this spring and I know what I’m gifting them now.

The Fifth Vital Sign

But this is not where the sentence comes from. So being a super-sophisticated power user (;-) I went to Google again and did another search, this time with quotes around the sentence.

Then I found it! This comes from the first episode of the new season of Invisibilia. Co-host Alix Spiegal says it. This NPR podcast is consistently mind-blowing and incredibly entertaining. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

This episode is about pain. Specifically looking at how the elevation of pain to the “fifth vital sign” (alongside blood pressure, heart rate, temperature and breathing rate) in the 1990s changed attitudes about pain. Here is the context of quote in the episode:

“What is beyond debate, however, is that conceiving of pain as the fifth vital sign and asking patients about their pain number meant that pain got a lot more attention than it ever had before. And here’s the thing about attention that most of us don’t fully appreciate. Attention is not a neutral force. It invariably changes the thing that it purports to observe. Often, it makes that thing bigger”

Alix Speigal, Invisabilia

The episode goes on to follow a young woman suffering with chronic pain and the counter-intuitive therapy she goes through to get relief.

Again, I highly recommend that you listen to this episode and to the podcast in general. I always learn something from Invisabilia.

So, the bottom line is to pay attention to what you pay attention to.

Now I’ve gotta go drive toward those snow-covered mountains. Talk tomorrow.

If you got something out of this, please share with your friends!

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