Stolen Focus as Spiritual Crisis: On Joining the “Attention Rebellion”
Of the creation and enumeration of crises, there is no end. Any short list of major contemporary crises must include the ongoing COVID pandemic, the ecological crisis, the global rise of rightwing nationalist populisms, and the return to consciousness of the nuclear crisis in the wake of the war launched by Russia in Ukraine. But in a new and important book, Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again (2022), journalist Johan Hari argues that there is another crisis that desperately needs our attention—the crisis of attention itself.
For a host of reasons surveyed in his book (including speed, stress, chronic sleep deprivation, tech that can capture and manipulate attention, pollution, and even our degraded diets, etc.), Hari persuasively demonstrates that we are living through an unprecedented era of fractured attention. He argues that if we are to address any of the other major crises named above, we will first have to muster the sustained attention necessary to analyze and address them. But how, given the crisis of attention itself?
Hari offers one empirical data point to demonstrate the problem’s gravity:
. . . a small study investigated how often an average American college student actually pays attention to anything, so the scientists involved put tracking software on their computers and monitored what they did in a typical day. They discovered that, on average, a student would switch tasks once every sixty-five seconds. The median amount of time they focused on any one thing was just nineteen seconds. If you’re an adult and tempted to feel superior, hold off. A different study by Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine—who I interviewed—observed how long on average an adult working in an office stays on one task. It was three minutes. (10)
Sobering and even grim data. I invite the reader to count the moments of distraction and compromised attention you experience before you reach the end of my relatively brief piece.
What Hari does not mention is that a crisis in our capacity to focus is also grave news for religious and spiritual communities—whether traditional or unconventional. The words “spiritual” and “religious” do not occur in the body of Hari’s text. There is (at least) one very good reason for this omission: Hari is not writing a frilly self-help book that blames victims of vast societal processes for their problems. Nor does he call us to solve the problem of focus by meditating more—the attentional equivalent of a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” approach. The author is too sophisticated for facile solutions.
So, it is up to religious/spiritual persons to draw the implications of Hari’s research for their own communities. The indispensable first step in addressing a problem is recognition of the problem. Prayer, contemplation, and meditation, in various forms, are cherished disciplines regardless of whether one happens to be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Jewish, Muslim or SBNR—Spiritual But Not Religious. Spiritual maturity in almost any tradition—awakening to one’s Buddha-nature, for example—requires cultivating capacities for undivided attention however much something like grace plays a role in developing that capacity. But if capacities to engage in these disciplines are undercut by broad cultural forces, spiritual communities will lose core capacities that they have cherished and cultivated for centuries, even millennia.
The capacity for attention is not just central to spiritual disciplines like prayer but for the ethical frameworks and behavior that traditions require from believers. Consider, for example, these striking words from twentieth century philosopher-mystic, Simone Weil, arguably the patron saint of Christian attention. Weil writes in, Waiting for God,
Not only does the love of God have attention for its substance; the love of our neighbor, which we know to be the same love, is made of this same substance. Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention. The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing; it is almost a miracle; it is a miracle. Nearly all those who think they have this capacity do not possess it. (69)
If attention was already a miracle in Weil’s own time, it must be even more so now in the time of scattered thinking. One can only imagine Weil’s alarm were she still around to read Hari’s book. The core double-calling of Christian life—loving attention to God and neighbor—stand compromised by minds now incapable of focused and prolonged attention.
But Weil’s wisdom—that love might just be another word for attention—should be a cause of concern for the religious and secular alike. How is anyone to develop the capacity to care—particularly for those in the grip of acute suffering—if you are unable to stay present, be attentive, and remain focused?
What next for spiritual communities? What comes after recognition? While Hari does offer concrete proposals by which persons can begin to reclaim our capacities for focus, his real call is for an “Attention Rebellion”—an organized public movement which insists on combating those forces that are corroding our collective capacities to focus. His first major agenda item is to “ban surveillance capitalism, because people who are being hacked and deliberately hooked can’t focus” (273). Here, Hari, drawing on the groundbreaking work of Shoshana Zuboff, is pointing to a broad array of actors who employ their products and platforms to monitor and commodify our attention. In a curious way, their products are not primary object of sale; we are, or rather our attention is. So we must be manipulated to remain engaged and addicted for as long as possible.
Need it be said? Communities whose ultimate concerns cause them to recognize the spiritual significance of focus and attention must also make this fight their own. They must join a growing array of secular voices who are already pointing to the growing attentional crisis that is compromising us all. The current resurgence in mindfulness, contemplative prayer, and the like might already be cultural responses to the rise in attentional breakdown, but they are insufficient. Spiritual communities must wed the reclamation of their communities’ capacities for focus with the larger social movement that Hari calls for. Jains, Christians, Sikhs, and the SBNRs must also render themselves integral players in building an Attention Rebellion. For religious communities, it is a spiritual obligation and for secular communities an ethical mandate.
John Thatamanil is Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions at Union Theological Seminary. He is also Volunteer Curate at the Anglican Church of St. John the Divine in Victoria, BC, and Theologian to the Diocese of Islands and Inlets. He is the author of Circling the Elephant: A Comparative Theology of Religious Diversity. He teaches courses on comparative theology, theologies of religions as well as a course on Gandhi and King. He is a past-President of the North American Paul Tillich Society and current Chair of the American Academy of Religion’s Theological Education Committee. His Op-Eds have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times and a variety of sites online.
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