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From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022

Where we put our attention is our life


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Our focus decides our experience

Where we put our attention is our life. For it is whence our attention alights or is sustained that we think, form impressions, speak, believe, and act. Where we put our attention equals our very experience of life. Aside from time itself, our attention is the most important resource we have.

But, there’s a problem, and we battle it every day, wittingly or not. We are deluged with too many options for where we might direct our attention at any given moment. And, so many internal passions and external influential forces are at play, the obvious being other people with their own agendas or media seeking to claim our eyeballs and ears, that pointing our attention toward the choice-worthy can be a fool’s errand.

How recognizable is the stereotype of the teenage kid who stares, trance-like, into their phone or at video games? We might flatter ourselves by thinking we aren’t as foregone as that. Sure, we get distracted from time to time, but I know I like to think I am protected from such excesses by the temperance and necessities of adulthood.

Still, I offer a mundane example from my own life to which you might relate. I have to write an article. It’s due soon. Great: I go to my home office to begin. My phone notifications are silenced. Time to get to work, except I happen to glimpse my son texted me needing to know the phone number of my car mechanic; oh, and it’s kind of urgent. Okay – I’ll just get him that number and hop back to work. I leave my office and head upstairs to retrieve it. On my way I notice a library book that is way overdue wedged in a stack of books. So, I stop – just for a second – to grab the book. Then I think – okay, I’ll just run that book to my car so I won’t forget to return it, because next time I drive somewhere I’ll see it in the passenger seat. I deliver the book to the car, and then – what was it I was doing? – oh yah, getting that telephone number for Noah. I search out the number and text it. But, I confess I jump on my New York Times app – just for a sec – because I want to see if Congress passed that bill today. I mean, I need to be an informed citizen, right? But, oh no, the headlines inform me of something crazy and shocking, so I have to read at least the first few paragraphs of the article. But wait, now my colleague just texted. This will only take a second to answer, except I have to stop and think of something helpful to say to him. Hmmm, I’m not quite sure what to tell him yet. Across the room I notice some laundry that could use folding – god, what a mess my bedroom is – maybe I’ll just run the vacuum quickly. Oh shoot: I need to write that article. I will myself to return to my office, but now my head is full of bees. I’ve lost the through line of my article. My mind is pinballing among thoughts of my son, political corruption, which reminds me of a podcast I heard yesterday, what a mess my house is, and my punishingly long list of todo’s. And much more.

This is a mundane, overly simplified description of how our attention jumps willy-nilly from one thing to another, trying to simultaneously hold an unwieldy number of ideas, memories, and plans, and failing. What is being sacrificed? Our focus, of course. We are all struggling in different ways and to different degrees to maintain focus. We try to sustain our attention on one important thing until it’s done, or thought through, or sufficiently advanced. Yet, everything militates against this. While this may sound like a mere productivity challenge that could be put right by a few pointers for ending procrastination, the Stoics teach otherwise.

The Stoics understand that if our lives are driven by an unbridled mind, the consequences are far more dire than an overdue or hastily written article. When our minds are typically afflicted with the kind of chaos described above, we don’t just lose track of an important task we want to complete. We start to lose track of our very selves, of who we are trying to be, of what we wanted to do and give in our lives. We get misdirected away from our most precious guiding principles. We become lost, angry, despairing, manipulable.

The Stoics view the consequences of an undisciplined mind as an affliction of the soul. I don’t believe that is a merely quaint poetic description. The only way anything worthwhile in any category of our lives gets done is through sustained attention to worthy (“virtuous”) ideas and endeavours. So many of us walk around feeling lousy about ourselves because we repeatedly fail to complete worthy things. How does the soul achieve equilibrium? How do we achieve self-respect and dignity? We do so by mono-focusing on and completing worthy things.

Many of us falsely believe that we are intrinsically undisciplined, that there is something bad or wanting in us. But, our divided, fractured attention isn’t altogether our fault. Every day in our technologically jacked-up, media-saturated world, our attention is deliberately hijacked. Sustaining focus is an uphill battle for the state of our souls, unless we are guided by the awareness that our attention is embattled and we commit to building ameliorative practices and habits into our days to corral our attention.

Unchecked emotion fracture our attention

Enter the Stoics with their elevation of the ideal of logos, of reason, suggesting that a healthy, practical, and spiritual life is dependent on our repeatedly adjusting our attention toward virtue, which the ancient Stoics, such as Zeno and Chrysippus, held as the exclusive good. While virtue being the exclusive good may be a bit orthodox for some modern ears, the teachings of the late Stoics, such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, repeatedly remind us to respect the enfeebling effects of the unchecked categories of passion, including pleasure, pain, desire, and fear.

These passions, left unrecognized are what fracture our attention. Fortunately, through deliberate philosophical and contemplative practices we can serenely focus our attention on the worthy and thereby best answer the question life puts to us: What does this moment call for?

Sharon Lebell is the author of The Art of Living, a modern interpretation of Epictetus’ teachings, the first contemporary treatment of Stoic teachings. She cofounded, with Simon Drew and Kai Whiting, an online philosophical society, The Walled Garden. Please come visit us.