Attention!

by Tom Swift

Mindfulness is all the rage right now.

Maybe it’s the contrarian in me, but for some time I have noticed a mild but adverse reaction arise inside when I hear that word. This even though I know — even though I have seen in my own life — that locating oneself in the present brings about myriad benefits, not the least of which is a focus on the only moment that can be reconciled — this one.

Yet word I like instead is attention.

What are you paying attention to?

What has your attention?

To attend to something or someone.

Perhaps it’s a semantical distinction only but the difference between the new-agey “mindfulness” and the old-school “attention” (the word the Stoics used) processes in my mental gear-shaft differently. Attention is less a calming technique and more a word that speaks to and helps fuel a person’s purpose. To be mindful is to observe; to pay attention is to apply that observation — to act, specifically, in a deliberate and conscious manner. Mindfulness is airy, attention is practical.

(I have no doubt that a mindfulness expert, and I am decidedly not one, might parse the word and its application differently than I am here. I want merely to note my observation/reaction. If you owe something to mindfulness I do not, to be sure, wish to take it away.)

Attention, too, to me at least, speaks to choice. You are not merely allowing the proverbial river to run — the proverbial clouds to pass gently by, carrying with them all your ego-driven thoughts — but rather you are engaged in the writing, the speaking, the listening, the reading, your relations, your work.

Certainly, you could pay attention to frivolous things. But if you are, you have chosen to do so. Besides, it seems unlikely if you are one who pays attention that you will fritter away much off your time. I could be wrong.

Time: that is what we are talking about — right?

How are you using your allotment?

This seems not an insignificant question for every person.

Of the infinite options we have with our minutes, are we making wise choices?

I have a complicated relationship with time. On one hand, I have long held a keen sensitivity to its finiteness. I know life is short. I don’t have to be told. On the other, as a result, I have sometimes placed too much weight on every moment, downplaying endeavors I value thinking that I should not. Another way to put it: Unless I am doing significant things, I am wasting my time. And, well, life is full of mundane moments. It’s a high bar to think you must clear high bars all day long.

For example, I find writing to be a worthwhile use of one’s time — a way for some of us to discover and synthesize our thinking, to make use of an effective form of communication, and a means to move the world a little (such as with the creation of art or any thoughtful utterance). Yet not every sentence is going to sing — not every thought is worth putting into words, not every story is worth telling. To be a writer is to squander time on a whole lot of bad work. Sometimes the shit turns into something. Sometimes you are just shoveling shit for seemingly no reason.

There is, of course, a reason — it’s a necessary part of the process.

Yet it’s not easy to be, ahem, mindful of this when you look at the clock and see that you have spent two, three hours putting sentences together that aren’t worth sharing or preserving. (More than once as I have read through this very post have I wondered whether these specific sentences fall into that precise category.)

I have little in the way of grand conclusions here. What is coming up for me is that it’s pretty hard to write — even if the writing is shit — if you are not paying to your thoughts and the words that aim to uncover and convey those thoughts. In that way, writing is, in its essence, a form of — a way to pay — attention.

And so in that way is its own reward.