The subject of attention is a common one in Buddhist practice. Indeed, meditation is all about paying attention to this present moment only, while letting ‘everything else’ – thoughts about the past, speculations for the future – float away like so many clouds. Meanwhile, society in general seems to be increasingly aware there is an “attention gap” going on.
Author, martial arts champion and youth chess champion Josh Waitzkin, who you may know from the book and film Searching for Bobby Fischer, which followed Josh’s journey to his first national chess title, recently shared a compelling story of inattention with author Tim Ferriss.
Josh had returned to Columbia and Barnard, his alma mater, to visit the classroom of Dennis Dalton, a professor who Josh calls “a life changer.” Josh noted that Dalton’s class led Josh to explore Taoist and Buddhist literature which played a major role in his post-chess life.
Josh was on hand for one of Professor Dalton’s final lectures, but for most of the students in attendance, it was just another day:
Over the course of a riveting 75-minute discussion of the birth of Gandhian non-violent activism, I found myself becoming increasingly distressed as I watched students cruising Facebook, checking out the NY Times, editing photo collections, texting, reading People Magazine, shopping for jeans, dresses, sweaters, and shoes on Ebay, Urban Outfitters and J. Crew, reorganizing their social calendars, emailing on Gmail and AOL, playing solitaire, doing homework for other classes, chatting on AIM, and buying tickets on Expedia (I made a list because of my disbelief). From my perspective in the back of the room, while Dalton vividly described desperate Indian mothers throwing their children into a deep well to escape the barrage of bullets, I noticed that a girl in front of me was putting her credit card information into Urban Outfitters.com. She had finally found her shoes!
Read the entire article, with a link to a follow-up part two article, here.
A June 29, 2008 Boston Globe article (Attention, Class by Maggie Jackson) states that “paying attention is a more important skill than you might think,” and the good news that “attention may be learned,” statements which I suppose Buddhists might find as obvious a statement as “water is wet”! Anyway, the article goes on to review evidence supporting this good news.
I read the article which, after discussing various technologies designed to help children improve their attention levels, finally mentioned that some researchers are…
…instead investigating the attention-boosting potential of something very different: the 2,500 year old tradition of [Buddhist] meditative practice. With a long history but little scientific data on its effects, meditation has begun to intrigue neuroscientists in labs around the country who are measuring the success of meditative practices that boost skills of focus and awareness.
The article also quotes Amir Raz, a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University. Raz may as well be describing some of the benefits of Buddhist meditation itself:
“If you have good attentional control, you can do more than pay attention to someone speaking at a lecture, you can control your cognitive processes, control your emotions, better articulate your actions. You can enjoy…life.”
It is interesting that Buddhist meditative practice is gaining new, well, attention in our increasingly “muttitasking” society. And Josh Waitzkin refers to multitasking (accurately, in my opinion) as a “virus.”
I will take it even further. I believe that democracy itself cannot function if a huge swath of the populace is not willing or capable of paying real, authentic attention to issues, and therefore reluctant to think, reason, and question to any significant degree as an informed citizen.
The good news is there is a prescription, provided by Buddhist meditation; a prescription from the Buddha some 2,500 years ago, which has no expiration date, as valid today as the day it was written. :)