It’s 2:30 am on a virtually moonless night. We are roped together and attempting to summit Mt. Shasta by climbing a steep wall of snow and ice only illuminated by our headlamps. The scene looks surreal but we are totally focused on placing our cramponed feet in the depressions made by the person in front. This not only minimizes effort but ensures less chance of slipping. Eyes and illumination are glued to our feet. Such focused attention on a single object for hours at a time is not unusual in wilderness travel.
However, it is unusual in ‘civilized’ life. Digitized video images, strobe lighting, the intrusive notifications of the arrival of email or text messages, radio and TV sound bites, pop-up ads – all are designed to compete for our attention and seduce us away from the current locus of our concentration. The result is that we don’t learn how to focus our attention for sustained periods of time and this affects our ability to appreciate things that take time to understand, whether that be ourselves, a long 19th century novel, a classic piece of music, or a new, deep and interesting friend. In addition, the techno-media so many of us are hooked up to makes reality appear pale and insipid by comparison.
A number of solutions come to mind and readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that spending time in the wilderness is one. But anything that slows us down, enforces quietude and opens us up to new sensations and perspectives will do the trick. Camille Paglia, in her beautiful new book, Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art From Egypt To Star Wars suggests that the only way to teach focus “is to present the eye with opportunities for steady perception – best supplied by the contemplation of art.” However, I suspect the current popularity of techniques like yoga and meditation also represent an attempt to counterbalance the lack of opportunities for sustained focus in modern life. I would also add that reading Proust helps develop the ability to stay focused. Proust indirectly instructs us on how to appreciate each moment of our life and if you have managed to stay with, for example, his thirty page description of how he falls asleep, you have learned to resist the curse of modernity, or what Proust called “not having time to do what you are doing.” Of course this passed right over Monty Python who pilloried Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time in the hilarious Summarizing Proust Competition (uncensored).
“One reason so few of us achieve what we truly want is that we never direct our focus; we never concentrate our power. Most people dabble their way through life, never deciding to master anything in particular.” Tony Robbins