Mindfulness Is Not Merely Subtraction

Mindfulness is not merely negation, subtraction, or reduction.

This was the thought that occurred to me as I read Miranda Ward’s reflections on her inadvertent break from the Internet, which concluded with the following observation:

“Why can’t we at least acknowledge that, with or without the internet, we still have to work hard, fight distraction, fight depression, and succumb, every once in awhile, to paralysing self-doubt? So it was nice, while I was on holiday, not to have any mobile phone reception. It’s also nice to be able to video chat with my 86-year-old grandmother in California. Disconnected, connected, whatever: I’m still fallible.”

Indeed, we are all fallible. If we assume that merely withdrawing from certain facets of digital life will by itself render us supremely attentive and mindful individuals, then we are certainly in for a rather disheartening disappointment.

That said, I do think the little word merely is essential. Mindfulness is more, not less than what I’ve called attentional austerity. To put it otherwise, attentional austerity is a necessary, but not sufficient cause of mindfulness. It’s not a matter of starving attention, but training and directing it.

Ordinarily, mindfulness is a habituated response, not a spontaneous reaction. Habituated responses arise out of our practices. If our online practices undermine mindfulness, then moderating these practices becomes part of the solution.

Learning to establish and abide by certain limits is, after all, an indispensable discipline. But imposing limits for their own sake is at best unhelpful and at worst destructive. Limits, as Wendell Berry has written, are best understood as “inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning.” They are for something. 

Mindfulness must be for something. It is about fostering a certain kind of attention and learning to deploy it toward certain ends and not others. 

While doing whatever we call the Twitter equivalent of eavesdropping on an exchange centered on David Foster Wallace and the idea of mindfulness, I was reminded of Wallace’s Kenyon College commencement address in which he makes the following observation:

“The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the ‘rat race’ — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

Mindfulness, in Wallace’s view, is about redirecting our attention toward others; and not only toward others, but toward others as ends in themselves (to put a Kantian spin on it). This latter qualification is necessary because we very often direct our attention upon others, but only for the sake of having ourselves reflected back to us.

There are, of course, other legitimate ends toward which mindfulness may aspire. The point is this: We ought not to be for or against the Internet in itself. We ought to be for the kind of loving mindfulness Wallace advocates — to take one example — and then we ought to measure our practices, all of them, online or off, by how well they support such loving mindfulness.

Attentional Austerity

A couple of weeks ago I read Cheri Lucas’ “Instapaper and My Ideal Intellectual State” with a certain empathetic resignation. Lucas was finding that a new work situation made it increasingly difficult to keep up with the daily torrent of online information coming through all the usual channels — Twitter, RSS feeds, etc. She looked to Instapaper as a way of keeping up a semblance of keeping up, but to no avail. Instapaper quickly became a repository of what might have been read in some ideal world. A site of aspirational knowledge, a kind of Pinterest for the mind (without all the graphical flair).

I get it. This is where I now live too. I haven’t posted in over two weeks. For those of you who have recently started following The Frailest Thing thanks to the whole toilet paper thing — well, first of all, welcome and thank you. Secondly, I have ordinarily kept up a better clip. Right now it seems to me that the best I’ll be able to do is something like a post each week. Perhaps as things get a bit more routinized, I’ll be able to pick up the pace.

Or maybe not. I’m beginning to think that perhaps a post per week is a pretty good pace to aim for. I’ve been impressed again by the preciousness of attention. Because I have less time to devote to the Sisyphian task of keeping up with the daily digital deluge, I’m becoming increasingly draconian in deciding what deserves my attention. I’m ruthlessly ignoring whole swaths of Twitter-time and savagely gutting my RSS feed.

(As Nick Carr pointed out some time ago, the problem isn’t filter failure. My filters work wonderfully. Everyday they collect swaths of interesting, stimulating, entertaining material. It’s just too much.)

I told some students recently that the most important skill they may ever learn is that of wisely deploying their attention. For the most part we seem to do so carelessly, hearkening every call upon our attention with Pavlovian alacrity. It’s a ruinous habit, better to be misers with our attention.

In other words, we need to impose a regime of attentional austerity to counter continuous partial attention, the default mode arising out of our media environment.

It’s sometimes assumed that in the world the Internet created, those who excel at multi-tasking and endlessly partitioning their attention will have the advantage. I’m not so sure. It rather seems like we are turning our digital devices into horcruxes of the mind. Instead, I’m betting the advantage will go to the person who is able to cancel out the noise and focus with ferocity.