Can you engage in the present moment and let go of your other concerns while not engaged in a) an activity that demands all your attention, or b) under the influence of any drugs, or c) taking a sick day? Reading this might be a start, but hardly enough to free yourself from the pull of alternative options for your attention.
As part of my research on lived experiences of well-being during treatment for schizophrenia, I’ve been considering the concept of ‘mindfulness’, and how people fill their time otherwise. Most people I know (in and beyond my research) turn to alcohol or pills to shift them into a slower, more present-centred gear. Some meditate. Most of us try to catch a break from the general attitude to modern living, which – in between being sedated, high, sick, or meditating – seems to be increasingly hasty. There’s always more to do, attention spans are dwindling, as are capacities to enjoy the present moment.
Whether it’s skimming through a social media feed, planning the weekend or the next social occasion in lieu of enjoying your present company, or just never really being satiated by any kind of consumable, it can be difficult to not look for something or someone else to occupy ourselves with. Why?
One possible reason aligns with Nietzsche’s claim that, “haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself”.
But are we really just in flight from ourselves, to try and distract ourselves from our ‘self’? As I will explore below, we can add in cultural forces to the things that we’re in flight from as well.
Keeping up with and distracting ourselves with news
When I’m not absorbed in my thesis data (which sometimes feels like an addiction), checking Twitter has become both a guilty compulsion and sometimes useful distraction for me. No matter how much of an echo chamber it is, I tell myself it keeps me vaguely in tune with the wider world around me. I’m ‘in flight’ from my academic luddite status perhaps.
When I first open up the Twitter app on my phone, I find myself scrolling straight down to the ‘in case you missed it’ feed. Ironically, it’s the tweets with the longest expiry date that seem to catch my attention.
Ironically again, the hardly-expiring tweet that caught my attention recently was a link to an Alain de Botton article titled, ‘the news from without and the news from within’. The article suggested that if we continually stretch our attention outwards to external ‘drama’ that we cannot keep up with any more than we can certify our needs to know of it we: 1) cannot appreciate holistic pictures of society and; 2) lose opportunities to attend to personal dramas that are ultimately driving our attention outwards in the first place.
So, that second point reiterates Nietzche’s. I agree with it insofar as having something ‘external’ to put our energies towards does help mitigate any chronically inconvenient daily realities. Sometimes this is also about getting perspective, when we find ourselves absorbed by really horrible things in the news that quite rightly make whatever personal ‘dramas’ we have trivial. Sometimes people like to concern themselves with someone else’s story to the extent that it becomes a part of their own story (yes, anthropologists might be a little guilty of this, but I know plenty of non-anthros who like to build social rapport by sharing interesting stories of others they’ve known, often without their consent).
Consuming things inconspicuously
In regards to de Botton’s first point, that by only consuming snippets we miss the bigger picture, this to me is symptomatic of the ‘elite’ trend toward ‘inconspicuous consumption’. For those that can afford it, ‘cultural capital’ is increasingly about accumulating experiences and knowledge rather than material things (now that a larger sector of society can access the latter – Louis Vuitton is not what it used to be).
It seems we are generally less inclined to absorb experiences because the next experience must be simultaneously secured in case we miss out. Because as choices for consumption (from coffee shops to holiday destinations) open up, the ability to feel like enough is enough is compromised.
This brings us to the tensions between living in the present, enjoying experiences as they happen, and accumulating experiences in pursuit of building that elusive cultural capital that now marks the good life. The criteria for delayed gratification seems to have been truncated (digital tracking devices provide a case in point). The accumulation of a day’s work is only gratifying momentarily.
Is this, then, just as much about competing against ourselves, to distract ourselves like Nietzsche suggested, as it is about social values? And, how is all this manifesting in our ability to retain information in our social worlds?
Multi-tasking/attending makes for bad company
While there is pressure to do and experience as much as possible in short time frames given to us, I feel much more competent in driving the experience if I’m simply doing one thing for an extended period of time. Doing less is more in the longer term, and also in the everyday sense. Once I start trying to fit in several activities at once, or trying to please too many people at once, not only do I do a lousy job, I feel hastier, unfulfilled and stressed (as evidence suggests). What’s more, I become a terrible listener and make more mistakes.
Even the most mundane mistakes are consequential. For example, recently when I had a few things on my mind ‘to do’, my partner told me that we had an aphid problem with our lemon tree. This did not catch my attention as a big problem, but he did ask me if I could “please keep an eye out for lady birds” (to eat the aphids). I likely responded (maybe on autopilot) “yes, of course”. Because I wasn’t really paying attention, this is not quite the story I retained. A week later, I noticed that some wilting flowers I’d picked from the garden and put in a vase were covered in aphids. Excitedly, I threw these flowers in the garden bed below the lemon tree, so that the aphids could resolve this problem I recalled we had! I thought my partner would be pleased too. Alas, I hadn’t been listening properly – I’d somehow construed in my scatty memory that we needed aphids; the ladybirds part went amiss. Ridiculous.
Beyond, say, listening to a podcast while cooking, I am a terrible multi-tasker/attention giver. This does, however, work in my favour when I’m happily immersed in thesis writing. If someone interrupts me and asks me a question while I’m in the middle of a thought, I struggle to shift my focus. Even socialising for a few hours when I haven’t finished thinking through something feels very challenging. But this might be because of the type of work I’m doing – anthropology suits me because it requires self-directed engagement. It has now occurred to me that the very process of doing fieldwork also requires a fair bit of ‘mindfulness’ – the ethnographer’s job is to listen and observe closely, and I certainly found myself totally focused on the worlds I was experiencing.
Knowledge chasing and finding a balance
Having said that, I’d like to be able to switch mental gears a bit more easily, to be more present in my other social worlds. This recent Thesis Whisperer post epitomises how PhD students can get carried away with their research commitments. But this is again an issue of getting caught up in too many tasks at once, even if they’re all under the one banner (‘PhD’; ‘career building’; ‘health kick’; ‘weekend planning’). This flurry doesn’t seem to help unless we’re really fulfilling ourselves in the process and able to attend to other important things in life.
I’m not doing a PhD for the qualification, it is more the ‘intellectual challenge’ of the process that seems to be driving me. Though, as Jodie has blogged about, love as the driving force in academia leaves big questions that are personally and culturally very difficult to engage with. Further, although I do aspire to get my thesis done as quickly as I can, I have not had to compromise on who’s doing the ‘thinking’ for it. It’s all felt rewarding – albeit slow to percolate if I compared my timeline to someone in the natural sciences.
The other day a fellow student told me the pressure she’s facing to finish her thesis has put her off pursuing a research career afterwards, because she feels less intellectually engaged now than before she started her doctorate. She was a third year biology PhD student who feels micro-managed by her supervisor to the extent that he’s now writing her papers for her thesis-by-publication, just to get her through her candidature faster (and keep up with his own publishing record, no doubt). She said she hasn’t had the time or space to be to able to think for herself or really care about her project beyond finishing it, in sharp contrast to her undergraduate experience that inspired her to do a PhD in the first place.
Being mindful of cultural influences
In all, our inclinations to live in haste or obsessively absorb ourselves in one thing at a time come down to macro and micro level cultural expectations about how we should be spending our time and what we aspire to consume (into our bodies, material goods, experiences, knowledge). Some would argue that if we were more mindful, by way of attentively observing our present experiences instead of hastily moving from experience to experience, the cultural shift could even ‘save America’.
So, getting back to Nietzche’s supposition, my thoughts are that, yes, we might all be running away from inner turmoils in pursuing hasty lifestyles, but what we’re also avoiding is consideration for the social worlds driving our insatiable appetites and ideas of escapism. Knowing how much to meditate on these cultural underpinnings opens up further meditations. All of which can still be done over a drink, of course. Just sip slowly.
[Image by Julia Brown]