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August 6th, 2020
Attention is time.
Not all time is attention.
You only have one chance in each moment to pay attention.
The obvious truism is to try and not miss that moment. But this presents a further paradox about the present: can you actually get anything done if you are focusing on the moment in a sense that you want to be present?
These flashes of time that remain shining in memory as moments when we were truly present are often passive, meaning we appreciate and experience the present best from an observatory role. This is much of what the practice of meditation involves: just observe the moment. That’s it.
But is it possible to observe the moment and do something at the same time? Does action require a narrowing of focus that drops our experience out of the observatory role? At first pass the answer seems to be yes. But it should be noted that there exists the possibility with a great deal of meditative practice to bridge the two sides of this paradox and become present in an appreciatively observatory role while quite active.
This bears a remarkable similarity to what’s commonly referred to as flow. The athlete who falls into a virtuous synchronicity with the game feels as though they have taken a step back from their own experience, observing all at once and fitting in their movements with ease, as though those movements were mere obvious choices provoked by the details blooming from the situation rather than some complicated calculation of free will.
Flow can also seem like quite the opposite, where gobs of time fly by while we are buried within a vault of concentration. The task finds its completion and we finally breathe deep, lean back and notice with astonishment the first rays of sunrise.
Strangely, this second description bears more similarity to our experience of the exact opposite: think of half a dozen hours wasted in front of Netflix autoplaying show after show. A season finishes and finally we wake up from the wasteful daze and realize that another day is now gone. While oddly similar in subjective experience, the difference here is enormous: one experience is active, the other is passive.
What exactly is happening with our attention in each of these circumstances? We might be tempted to ascribe a direction to flow in each of these. With the passive day wasted in front of Netflix, the flow is from the external to the internal, we just receive sound and light and whatever other accoutrement might accompany entertainment. And then with the productive flow state, the direction is reversed: we are generating something, putting out into the world and changing the state of the universe in some tiny way.
With this rubric of direction it can seem like the act of being mindfully present as practiced in meditation is of the wasteful, passive variety. It’s not at all unfair to say that this is true: you could be getting something else done. But this is an example of short-term logic, and it misses the larger point which only emerges after months or years, and perhaps even decades of practice: the point of meditation isn’t to passively witness your life during a couple dozen minutes a day, but to gain the ability to incorporate the skill into life at large and ultimately, to have your cake and eat it too.
Your life, as witnessed from your eyes and through your ears, by the sensation of your skin, the weight of your bones and the movement or your whole self through space and time is like the quintessential movie. It’s not just during the quiet moments, nor the practiced moments or the special moments that we can observe this vast spectacle. With practice, we can observe with joy and gratitude that single protagonist during their most strenuous or concentrated moments.
Meditation practice, defined as that group of wasted minutes when we sit and try to do nothing is very much like backing up from the edge of the precipice in order to get a running start. The daily practice of meditation adds just a little momentum to a growing way of thought and experience that can, with time & attention, bridge the paradox of focus and presence, ensuring that you don’t miss out on life while you’re busy getting it done.