How to Rehabilitate a Shrinking Attention Span
I’ve noticed an increased restlessness. It’s not a physical desire to travel or roam; this is a restlessness of the attention span and a splintering of focus. It’s gotten worse in the past year; oh has it ever.
Once I could sink into my favorite couch and read for hours. Now, after 15 minutes I fidget, check my phone, look out the window, browse recipes. Book, what book?
Writing stretches are growing shorter, peppered with interruptions — like checking social media, or — and here’s the big problem — attending to a sudden idea that comes flitting in. One second I’m writing a scene and ALL OF A SUDDEN I’m making a note of something like a good swim workout idea, or adding Lara bars to the shopping list. Unimportant distractions. They’re becoming a habit of mind. A bad habit.
The ability to sit with ease is feeling out of reach; the hour of daydreaming I used to do in my corner chair over coffee lasts about 10 minutes before I wonder: Is there something else I could be doing, something more worthwhile? (This question is forever unanswered; the more I ask it the more I chase my tail.)
I know that spending time sitting, meditating, or in some form of quiet time would be a good practice. Seven years ago I took a day-long meditation class that I enjoyed and practiced daily for one entire month. I can’t remember how I felt exactly — calmer? less restless? — but I was sold on the benefit of sitting for a half-hour a day. Having a guided meditation helped a lot.
Somewhere during the second month, I quit. I saw how meditation was helping me respond to life’s left turns with more grounding and less hysteria and angst; I saw the act of sitting still as a kind of disciplinary endurance sport that would then help me at my writing desk or to hang in there with an uncomfortable feeling.
I just wasn’t into the act of meditating — the pillow, the sitting upright, the eyes closed — and that was that.
This past week I flew from tree-drenched Seattle to Arizona, where my mom lives. The high desert couldn’t be more of a contrast with its variety of cacti and arid backdrop.
Sitting in my mom’s back patio with its rock stream, waist-high palm trees, fuchsia bougainvillea, I ended up worshipping the neighbor’s mesquite tree. It rose over the stucco dividing wall with such energy and beauty: dark bark against the lemon-lime of its feathery leaves; blue sky growing dusky. The energy and shape of this tree just knocked me out, the way it was moving up and out, filling the sky like a loving explosion.
This is it, I thought as I admired the tree from a lounge chair. This is how I am going to rehabilitate my attention span. I’m going to sit and look at something beautiful, like this tree. Like I’m doing now. I’m going to sit here and do nothing but feast my eyes on this tree. Quiet my body, rest my squirrely mind. This will be my practice. I’m starting right now.
Then I got fidgety. Soon, I wanted to check my phone. I know my phone isn’t more beautiful or interesting than this amazing tree, but it’s my body’s habit now.
A moment of frustration spiked, but I remembered the ABCs to meditating: start small, 5 minutes and build up.
So here I was: five minutes in. And I would build up.
I wasn’t going to call it “meditation,” because the word makes me want to say NO. I would call it a Focus Rehab Project. I could call it Quiet Time With Beauty.
And — this is big — my eyes would be open.
“Meditating”, with my eyes open, witnessing something beautiful, sitting in a comfy chair.
There are certainly enough gorgeous nature-friends to turn my attention to for five uninterrupted focus-rehab minutes and build up. We’ll see how it goes.