Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The quality of attention

I'm not sure if the book will live up to the promise of its topic and thesis, but I enjoyed this review of Winifred Gallagher's book Rapt. It's a subject dear to my heart: I've never been great with full and focused attention, even before the internet, and I'm more vulnerable than most to the rich range of distractions connectivity offers... facebook, twitter, blogs, sports bulletin boards, wikipedia, the netflix queue. This innate vulnerability is exacerbated by my current situation -- quite often, I'm looking for distraction.

And yet attention offers such rich rewards (the quote is book reviewer Laura Miller laying out some of author Gallagher's thoughts):

Winifred Gallagher's new book, "Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life" argues that it's high time we take more deliberate control of this stuff. "The skillful management of attention," she writes, "is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience, from mood to productivity to relationships." Because we can only attend to a tiny portion of the sensory cacophony around us, the elements we choose to focus on -- the very stuff of our reality -- is a creation, adeptly edited, providing us with a workable but highly selective version of the world and our own existence. Your very self, "stored in your memory," is the product of what you pay attention to, since you can't remember what you never noticed to begin with.

Gallagher came to appreciate this while fighting "a particularly nasty, fairly advanced" form of cancer. Determined not to let her illness "monopolize" her attention, she made a conscious choice to look "toward whatever seemed meaningful, productive, or energizing and away from the destructive, or dispiriting." Her experience of the world was transformed. This revelation naturally led her to wonder why she'd had to exert herself to do what made her feel better. Why didn't she turn to it as naturally as a thirsty woman turns to a glass of ice water? Why do we reflexively award more attention to negative or toxic phenomena like disasters and insults, while neglecting to credit small pleasures and compliments with the significance they deserve?
Bonus: If you enjoy the HBO series In Treatment, as L. and I very much do, check out Terry Gross's interview of Gabriel Byrne. His thoughts on the centrality of listening -- not to mention his clever riffs on desire, the priesthood and Ireland -- are well worth forcing oneself to sit still for a half-hour and focus...

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