Yesterday, my husband and I took a walk through a beautiful fall afternoon. Our dog nosed at animal trails and loped through a stand of golden aspens. The afternoon, in all respects, was gorgeous, the sort of full-color fall afternoon you know will soon be memory. My husband looked up. “Do you know what the weather is going to be tomorrow?”
I stopped in the middle of the trail and automatically reached toward my phone. Some part of my mind halted. “Don’t do it!” I said to myself. I pulled an empty hand back and picked a spear of grass instead, twirling it between my fingers. “No idea,” I answered my husband, “we can look when we get back.”
Sustained attention, we all know, is under assault. I recently listened to an interview about “the arms race for human attention” with former Google design ethicist, Tristan Harris. This interview was darkly illuminating about the persuasive psychology upon which internet content and smartphone applications are built. Far from neutral, the technology which frames our lives is engineered to maximize habit-formation and addiction. I feel moderately aware that my attention is being hijacked, and yet I still tune in to the ever-ready supply of constantly refreshed newsfeed, headlines, and emails.
We each have an inner garden to cultivate. Our hearts and minds, our brain space, our attention, are ours to tend. This work is our birthright. And everyday, I sell some portion of this birthright for meager return. Today I sold it for one trip to Facebook, nine or ten worthless checks on my email, and several swipes on national headlines.
I want my attention back. I want my inner garden to be rich with rare and exotic flowers cultivated over years of patience, effort, and considered attention. In this era where statistics show the average attention span has dropped below that of the common goldfish, I can’t assume that reclaiming my attention will come easily. Literally billions of dollars are arrayed against it.
Recently I came across this quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Men seek retreats for themselves, houses in the country, sea-shores, and mountains… But this is altogether a mark of the most common sort of men, for it is in thy power whenever thou shalt choose to retire into thyself. For nowhere either with more quiet or more freedom from trouble does a man retire than into his own soul…Constantly then give to thyself this retreat, and renew thyself.”
As I read this quote, something stirred inside. My modern mind feels abuzz with lists and worries, with reminders and to-dos. It couldn’t feel further from Aurelius’ trouble-free retreat. Yet it is within my power to retire into my own soul, to journey deep into that wilderness. Though billions of dollars clamor otherwise, each and every moment, the choice to make such a journey is mine.
P.S. What is your answer for leaving the constant buzz and “retiring into your soul?” We really want to know! Leave a comment here or (ironically) on EHH’s Facebook page, or send us a message.