Posted by: M.C. | 30 January 2010

The End of Attention

Driving home yesterday, I caught a commentary on NPR about the introduction of Apple’s new iPad multimedia device. The writer lamented the possible loss of the tactile experience of reading a paper and binding and ink book as opposed to the digital kind, especially, he noted, the distraction of all the other media available literally at the touch of one’s fingertips.

Distraction. I couldn’t help hearing that last bit without wondering, “Well, isn’t that the point?” We seem to inhabit a culture of distraction these days. I don’t just mean speed, though that’s part of it. I mean the availability, whatever we are doing at the moment, of something else to turn our attention to if we get bored or if we experience a lag of anything more than a few seconds. I note my own impatience when a webpage takes longer than an instant to load, and while I wait I click on a little Solitaire or Freecell to keep myself occupied. We seem not only bored by the possibility of “dead” time; we flee from it at every turn. We treat the idea of stopping to focus on one thing and doing nothing else, of giving one thing our full, silent attention, as though it were the most terrifying fate we could imagine. But what happens to a spiritual life when stimulation becomes the norm?

This is not a hypothetical question. In my search for a new religious home, I recall attending a Sunday service in which the sermon was accompanied by a series of projected slides. I would not have minded if the slides had referred to specific experiences or locations referenced in the sermon. Instead, though, they took the form of conceptual illustrations, vague combinations of color, light, and shapes–or worse, gauzy images of angels–a kind of visual mood music. I felt as though the minister felt she needed the equivalent of the shiny object you would dangle before a child to keep it from getting into mischief, as though the minister were afraid that we parishioners would grow restless listening to the sermon unless we had some object–anything–to occupy our eyes.

This visual cue has a musical equivalent in some versions of “praise bands” that I have heard. I have no problem with the use of music itself in worship; it can create a powerful, centering experience. But in some churches I’ve had the feeling that the songs occurred to keep us from losing interest and being bored by providing “entertaining” music. But I don’t go to church to be entertained; I’m not looking for a “fun” or “cool” church.

I want a place where I can step out of the cacophony of ordinary life and cultivate a peacefulness within me to carry back into my daily world. I don’t want a shot of espresso to energize me; I want a long, cool, soothing drink that gives me sustenance, not stimulation. At least not the kind of stimulation that wears off, like an energy drink, within a few hours and leaves me to crash. For me, this kind of sustenance only comes from careful, focused attention. It comes from taking the time, slowly and patiently, to listen and wait and be still. If we’re unwilling to tolerate stillness in our religious lives, it’s no wonder that we have so much trouble saying no to stimulation in the rest of our lives.

I think such stillness, however refreshing it can be, is also at times frightening; I know it is for me, even though I crave it. What voice will I hear when I turn off the commentary, the buzz, the glib and easy and certain answers? Will it tell me things about my life and my heart and my soul that I’m not ready to hear or to which I’m not willing to respond? Maybe. But this I do know: I need to find out. I need to pay attention.

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