I don’t want to give the impression of having a “serious issue” with attention since I’ve completed a university degree very successfully. I’ve gotten by in various jobs without any problems aside from being a little absent-minded at times. That said, my attention is by no means perfect. Being someone with high-ambitions I’m forced to imagine what my competition is like. How many hours a day are they working? How deeply do they really get immersed in the task at hand? Perhaps it’s somewhat like a bell-curve where those at the upper-reaches are uncommonly intelligent, hardworking, focused and conscientious.
I do read a lot more than average I think but life has a way of seeming to catchup soon after you get ahead. Yesterday’s great victories can become empty in ways that you don’t expect. For example I’m beginning to doubt how deeply I’m reading these books. Is it all pride and no substance? Is it time not well spent to have my eyes pass through page after page without being completely in the zone and having every rapturous epiphany to be had?
Once I heard a film-buff say that they would need to watch a movie several times when they were examining it. It’s one thing to go experience a creation for enjoyment, but it’s entirely another to go through and examine it through the eyes of a director or critic. That begs the question, whose eyes am I reading through? Not those of a student of literature, that’s too in-depth. Perhaps those of a future doctor. That’s not all though. I read for much the same reason that I travel: to broaden my horizons. It’s enough to familiarise myself with a book I believe to be worthy and socially spin off a few insights when the topic comes up. However I’d be very concerned if I found out that I wasn’t benefiting from travelling somewhere because it was done too hurriedly. As if I didn’t slow down enough or talk to the locals enough, challenge myself or break routine enough. If that were the case I’d thoroughly reexamine my mode of travel and probably choose to travel to fewer destinations but receive a greater impression from each. This is comparable to how I’m feeling about flawed attention whilst reading.
This blog is in many ways a product of that evanescent sense that I have about reading. If you can write something showing exactly what you got from it then you can be sure that you got something from it, right? The next step though is: can you talk about it impressively in society? Before you know it you’re being asked to write the preface to the book because you’ve read it 100 times in your obsession to really own it’s message. To take it’s value, ingest it, personify it and be a deeper person from it. Of course then arises the spectre of limited time; do you really want to spend half of your free time on such a small part of the world. Some do, although I’m more of a big picture person.
I have a friend who has travelled spectacularly over the last few years. He’s been to 80 countries. People admire him because they would like to do something remarkable and be special as well. Most people fawn at such a lifestyle yet it’s too far from the mainstream for many people to consider it, deep down they’re not one to forge their own paths. Even this impressive travel which may seem so transcendental to onlookers apparently seems increasingly baseless to him. I can see it in his Facebook posts. He’s trying to emphasise just how deeply he’s seeing every country, just how poetical some of the travel experiences are, that it’s more than just a number and actually means something. He’s beginning to question the worthiness of what he’s done. At the end of the day does it just come down to dopamine? I don’t mind if it is though, I’d rather be on the “made-it but seeing it’s unfulfilling” side. Maybe our anxieties about empty experience lead us to more meaningful experiences in the future; and that’s a good thing.
If you’re having these sorts of problems then your lifestyle probably isn’t balanced enough to begin with. You’re missing the spiritual side of things. The whole point of spirituality is transcendence. If you’ve gotten the gorgeous house in the nice suburb, but you’re been dominated by the proud, competitive and envious energies then you’re missing the spiritual side of things. I noticed this myself after recently moving to a pretty upscale suburb and then not meditating for a few days. At first I thought “this is fine” but then after a few days I found myself very susceptible to the “lower” energy status dynamics dripping off some of the local big shots. It’s much better to walk the streets carefree and on-purpose than to be stressed out because other people don’t shiver in their boots at your gravity and achievements but rather expect you to do it for them.
Back to my original intention: what are the benefits of having a mind that wanders more than you might like? Intuitively I do already believe that there are benefits. Let’s examine it. Take your garden variety high-achiever that dominates in high-school and university. They don’t have a learning disability, attention deficit or a behavioural problem. They do what’s expected, are focused on the material in front of them and they learn it. You might say they do exactly the right thing.
On the other hand you have the person whose mind is constantly wandering, they misbehave and they don’t retain things as well. They won’t do as well in school barring some exceptional gifts or effort. What could be positive about having this type of personality later in life? My inclination is to ask: where is that person’s mind going? Where is their energy flowing to? Their mental energy is going to something else and therein lies the (potential) upside. My mind for example is constantly revisiting the big picture and big questions of life. That’s the lens up to which daily tasks and relationships are viewed. It takes effort to constantly return my attention to the specifics of a task or book or to accept someone when they’re making some existential error. The high achiever who is able to be wholly engrossed in Don Quixote cover to cover is not thinking about anything else while they do it.
I believe it’s good to have a mind that churns around the big questions and is constantly recalibrating its course, but also one that can buckle down and become completely engrossed in the daily tasks which are inseparable from reaching “the big picture success”. Fortunately both focus and self-reflection can be cultivated. In fact both of those things can be practised whilst reading books. In closing I’d like to add that having a highly original role model who “has everything thought out” can be a positive presence in you life if yours isn’t the considered life. Indeed that might be exactly why these qualities are in the human mix to begin with.