Hindustan Times ST (Mumbai) - Brunch

The age of distractio­n

How to keep one’s attention from wandering in this era of muddled brains


“Awriter is one who pays attention to the world,” said American philosophe­r, writer and activist Susan Sontag. In these strange times, hazier than a sauna in a ‘90s American soap where inglorious seductions take place, it’s not just the writers who are suffering from an attention deficit. But what writers do well is to restate a problem, slyly passing on the buck of responsibi­lity like so: perhaps the world is to blame for this current crisis in our collective attention. Ergo, distractio­ns should be taken off the naughty list with immediate effect.

Who sabotaged my satisfacti­on?

How many times have you, over the past two muddled years, found yourself leaving a task half-done? You open a book, take a picture of the book, post it on Instagram, answer the doorbell, follow up on the Instagram post, make yourself a cup of chai, launch into a twelve-minute Whatsapp discussion on current travel protocol, read two paragraphs, check Instagram again, reply to a work mail, load the washing machine, decide you’ll never leave the house again, almost immediatel­y bolt out of the house to get an inconseque­ntial picture framed, with 16 tabs open in your overburden­ed yet underutili­sed brain.

The pandemic has combined with social media dependence in both frightenin­g and amusing ways. For all the seeming attention that we receive from friends, relatives, ghosts from the past, strangers and stalkers, we keep losing precious moments of uninterrup­ted focus on meaningful tasks. Basically, while we’re busy projecting beauty, success and intelligen­ce onto people who are indifferen­t, judgmental or envious, we’re sabotaging our own satisfacti­on from pursuits that feed our bodies, minds, souls—and bank accounts.

The wild horses of the unquiet mind

Case in point: the familiar phenomena of diminishin­g a beautiful experience by obsessivel­y capturing it on camera. I’ve subjected my fair share of sunsets, desserts, pets, friends and miscellane­ous objects connoting urban loneliness to relentless picture-taking. Each time, my attention shifts from what I’m seeing before me to the idea of preserving it for posterity. Everything’s constantly changing, fading, disappeari­ng; but at least my phone gallery will bear witness to history. That’s until I switch phones without transferri­ng data from one to the other—a superbly psychoanal­ysable trait from my odd repertoire.

Truth is, attention is a capricious bird, now sitting as still as a nervous traveller waiting for tatkal bookings to open on the Indian

Railways website, now swaying as dizzily as a drunk uncle around an open bar. My wayward mind wanders to a Hindi teacher from school with a philosophi­cal bent. She often spoke to us about the perils of letting our attention stray; the wild horses of the unquiet mind could only be mastered by effort of will and discipline. Further, she always made it a point to tell us how our impending adulthood promised to be a procession of unsavoury situations, inevitably leading to mental breakdown. No wonder, the very mention of Munshi Premchand makes me shiver to the day.


Somewhere in a zen heaven

A meme being revived in the new year features the four horsemen of procrastin­ation: napping, snacks, social media and minor chores. So, how does one break this frustratin­g cycle of attempted attention and frequent distractio­n to reach the desired state of monk-like focus? I’ll apply myself to the question right after I replace the water in the flower vase, self-administer a RAT test, ask everyone I know how they’re feeling today, and finish off the leftover hummus that’s just a few hours away from turning into a very spurious intoxicant.

One should, like my grim Hindi teacher suggested, try and rein in one’s galloping thoughts. Shutting oneself off from distractio­ns like the phone, fridge and bookshelf is a start. Next, one could try and channel some of the focus prescribed at a meditation camp I attended all those years ago in a township where distractio­ns weren’t permitted, meals were frugal and equanimity was everything. “Attention without feeling is merely a report,” wrote nature poet Mary Oliver. Somewhere in a zen heaven, I see myself writing by a lake while listening to an Amir Khusrau qawwali, looking up occasional­ly at a wisp of cloud and leading errant thoughts back to the page with practised ease.

rehanamuni­r@gmail.com Follow @rehana_munir on Twitter and Instagram

The pandemic has combined with social media dependence in both frightenin­g and amusing ways
SOCIAL SECURITY The pandemic has combined with social media dependence in both frightenin­g and amusing ways

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