• Cameron M. Clark

Attention: The Character of Our Experience and the Quality of Our Lives

In honour of World Mental Health Day coming up on October 10, 2020 I want to draw your attention to an important aspect of mental health: attention. In a very real sense, attention is our greatest resource as conscious beings. Attention is more important than money because we can always attain more money, whereas attention is inherently limited. Our attention is even more important than our time, because we have an active role to play in it's allocation, whereas time simply marches on regardless of our wishes (unfortunately).

We can choose to pay attention to the past and agonize over a yesterday where we didn't do something we should have, or did something we shouldn't have. Or, we can choose to pay attention to the future and fret about a tomorrow with too little opportunity, or too much difficulty. Or ideally, we can choose to pay attention to the present moment, or simply what is happening here and now. However, devoting our full awareness to the present is no easy task in a world that is constantly vying for our precious attention with every phone call, advertisement, and digital notification. As cognitive psychologist Herbert Simon noted in the 1970's "A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention".

The idea that we consciously choose where to place our mental focus is so intuitive that it seems trivial - however the consequences for the climate of our inner lives and wellbeing are hard to overstate.

Indeed, early psychologist and philosopher William James famously noted: "My experience is what I agree to attend to". And author and philosopher Sam Harris goes as far as to say: "How we pay attention to the present moment largely determines the character of our experience and, therefore, the quality of our lives". In this spirit, I want to suggest two techniques for helping to focus your attention on the present moment, and to avoid what some have called the 'mind magnets' of the past and the future.

First, some advice from American author Kurt Vonnegut:

"My uncle Alex Vonnegut...taught me something very important. He said that when things were really going well we should be sure to NOTICE it. He was talking about simple occasions, not great victories: maybe drinking lemonade on a hot afternoon in the shade, or smelling the aroma of a nearby bakery; or fishing, and not caring if we catch anything or not, or hearing somebody all alone playing a piano really well in the house next door. Uncle Alex urged me to say this out loud during such epiphanies: 'If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is'. So I do the same now, and so do my kids and grandkids. And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.'"

Second, an attentional challenge from Rob Walker's brilliant The Art of Noticing:

"On your next walk, or over the next week as you go about your business, make an effort to identify as many things as possible that quietly deserve praise, that others seem to have overlooked."

What other techniques do you use for keeping your attention on what's important to you? I'd love to hear from you. Drop me a line at cam@sharpthinking.org if you can spare the time and attention.

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