Thoughts on Attention

October 17, 2022
8 min read
Featured Image

In my current season of life, having a family, working, taking care of our home, and any other number of weekly tasks fills most of my time. So I’ve naturally been thinking more about what I’m doing with the time that's left over. And not necessarily how “productive” I make it, but in what I allow space for. Admittedly this can be exhausting. To constantly be “curating” my intake, or to continually “budget” my personal time can come with its own set of burdens. To have landed some free time, and then to spend it trying to choose what I’ll do can be a daunting task.

Looking back at what I’ve read over this past summer, I am catching a theme of what it means to be actively present and attentive in my daily life.

In listening to music, musicians typically differentiate between passively listening and “actively” listening. To listen to music as most of us know it now is to start a playlist while we cook in the kitchen, focus on work, or drive our morning commute. To actively listen is to sit with the music more directly—to try to understand how it was made, to distinguish between what we do and do not like, or to understand the structures of the lyrics or melodies we hear—and then to draw on these as creative inspiration.

In actively listening to music, we focus our attention in a creative way by engaging on a more critical level with something we think we know. To focus on something in particular means not focusing on anything else, to actively tune out other things. This might be one of my favorite parts of being a designer. In Designing Design, Kenya Hara opens the book with this thought:

“To understand something is not to be able to define it or describe it. Instead, taking something that we think we already know and making it unknown thrills us afresh with its reality and deepens our understanding of it. […] For instance, suppose there’s a glass here. You might know about a glass. But what if you need to design one? The moment a glass is proposed as an object to be designed, you start thinking about what kind of glass you want to design, and you lose a little bit of your understanding of “glass.” Arrayed in order before you are dozens of glass vessels of gradually varying depths, from “glass” to “dish.” What if you are asked to clarify the exact boundary point between one and the other? Faced with the objects, you’re at a loss. And again you become a little less sure of your knowledge of a glass. However, this doesn’t mean that your knowledge has been overturned. Indeed, it’s just the opposite. You’ve become more keenly conscious of glasses than before, when you understood them by simply unconsciously calling them all by the term “glass.” Now you actually understand glasses more realistically.”

Anytime I begin a design project, it’s implicit that I’ll have to focus my attention on the small details which I thought I knew, but hadn’t really looked **at before. Through the act of design, we are forced to make distinctions between what we like and what we don’t, and what will work best for a particular person or group of people, in a specific place, and in a specific time.

If we’re taking queues from design, the main takeaway here is that attention is by design—and design is really just creating a set of conditions within which to actively focus on something. Paying attention requires us to create conditions within which to pay attention. I think the idea here is intent.

Over the course of her life, Mary Oliver embodied this notion of paying attention. Earlier this summer I read her collection of essays in Upstream.

“Something is wrong, I know it, if I don’t keep my attention on eternity. May I be the tiniest nail in the house of the universe, tiny but useful. May I stay forever in the stream. May I look down upon the windflower and the bull thistle and the coreopsis with the greatest respect […] Attention is the beginning of devotion.”

How do we begin to describe our own process of becoming, of our movement through time and place? As if on the same wavelength, Jenny Odell, in How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, writes:

“My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos.

For Oliver, to be alive is to be attentive—to our own hearts, to the places we inhabit, to eternity. Similarly for Odell, our attention is ours alone, and often we find that it is more and more at risk of being taken from us unknowingly, with serious consequence:

“In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimized, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily […] “It is with acts of attention that we decide who to hear, who to see, and who in our world has agency. In this way, attention forms the ground not just for love, but for ethics.”

Odell’s book is important on so many levels, one reason being that she rightly identifies that fully owning and claiming our attention as an opportunity for us to re-engage on a deeper level with things that are important to us.

“We experience the externalities of the attention economy in little drips, so we tend to describe them with words of mild bemusement like “annoying” or “distracting.” But this is a grave misreading of their nature. In the short term, distractions can keep us from doing the things we want to do. In the longer term, however, they can accumulate and keep us from living the lives we want to live, or, even worse, undermine our capacities for reflection and self-regulation, making it harder, in the words of Harry Frankfurt, to “want what we want to want.” Thus there are deep ethical implications lurking here for freedom, wellbeing, and even the integrity of the self.

For Odell, owning our attention can be seen as an act of resistance against a social and cultural system which makes piecemeal of our time, and continually prods us to be productive, innovative, fresh, and new. Especially in the world of design, this terminology has become second nature. But what I love is that this act of resistance towards “moving forward” can lead us towards stewardship of things which already are:

“Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way.

Odell continually touches on the concept of bioregionalism, arguing that paying attention to our surroundings, to the place we presently are, will drive us towards a greater understanding of the natural world:

“…beyond its practical emphasis on local networks, there’s something about bioregionalism that seems to satisfy the age-old human longing to be a member of a community, to be both in and of a place. (OPEN SPACE)

As she discussed this concept throughout her book, I felt that it connected deeply with many of Wendell Berry’s writings about food, local community, land, and place.

“My own experience has shown me that it is possible to live in and attentively study the same small place decade after decade, and find that it ceaselessly evades and exceeds comprehension. There is nothing that it can be reduced to, because "it" is always, and not predictably, changing. It is never the same two days running, and the better one pays attention the more aware one becomes of these differences. Living and working in the place day by day, one is continuously revising one's knowledge of it, continuously being surprised by it and in error about it. And even if the place stayed the same, one would be getting older and growing in memory and experience, and would need for that reason alone to work from revision to revision. One knows one's place, that is to say, only within limits, and the limits are in one's mind, not in the place. This is a description of life in time in the world. A place, apart from our now always possible destruction of it, is inexhaustible. It cannot be altogether known, seen, understood, or appreciated.”

In many ways, this echoes Oliver’s attentiveness to her time spent walking on Provincetown, continuously observing flora and fauna, land and sea.

The first book I read this summer was Life is a Miracle, in which Berry critiques E.O. Wilson’s Consilience. Throughout the book, Berry defies the concepts of materialism and reductionism, arguing instead for us to pay attention to the mysteries and complexities of life in the places we inhabit. Here are a few of my favorite passages:

“I think that the poet and scholar Kathleen Raine was correct in reminding us that life, like holiness, can be known only by being experienced. To experience it is not to "figure it out" or even to understand it, but to suffer it and rejoice in it as it is. In suffering it and rejoicing it as it is, we know that we do not and cannot understand it completely. We know, moreover, that we do not wish to have it appropriated by somebody's claim to have understood it. Though we have life, it is beyond us. We do not know how we have it, or why. We do not know what is going to happen to it, or to us. It is not predictable; though we can destroy it, we cannot make it. It cannot, except by reduction and the grave risk of damage, be controlled. It is, as Blake said, holy. To think otherwise is to enslave life, and to make, not humanity, but a few humans its predictably inept masters.”

“I see that the life of this place is always emerging beyond expectation or prediction or typicality, that it is unique, given to the world minute by minute, only once, never to be repeated. And this is when I see that this life is a miracle, absolutely worth having, absolutely worth saving. We are alive within mystery, by miracle.

And maybe this is the most wonderful part of paying attention: that it awakens us to being alive in the world.

All Content © 2020 Alex Catanese. All rights reserved.