“The only communications truly without influence are those that one learns to ignore or never hears at all; this is why Jacques Ellul argued that it is only the disconnected—rural dwellers or the urban poor—who are truly immune to propaganda, while intellectuals, who read everything, insist on having opinions, and think themselves immune to propaganda are, in fact, easy to manipulate.”Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants
Those Immune to Propaganda
A Long, Quiet Battle
“… in media-rich human-built environments, my capacity to direct my attention in keeping with my purposes is often at odds with features of the environment that want to command my attention in keeping with purposes that are not my own. It is the difference between feeling challenged to rise to an occasion that ultimately yields an experience of competence and satisfaction, and feeling assaulted by an environment explicitly designed to thwart and exploit me.
Attention and attending are etymologically related to the Latin word attendere, which suggested among other things the idea of “stretching toward” something. I like this way of thinking about attention, not as a possession in limited supply, theoretically quantifiable, and ready to be exploited, but rather as a capacity to actively engage the world—to stretch ourselves toward it, to reach for it, to care for it, indeed, to tend it.
Right now, I’m inclined to put it this way: our dominant technologies excel at exploiting our attention while simultaneously eroding our capacity to attend to the world.”L.M. Sacasas, The Convivial Society, ‘Attending to the World’
Skilful Management of Attention
If you, like so many each year, were diagnosed with early stage cancer you would be forgiven for dwelling in each moment afterwards on how close death is to you and, by extension, your family. Only natural, right? But when the writer Winifred Gallagher stepped out of hospital some years ago after she received her own diagnosis she resolved to not allow the cancer to “monopolise” her attention. Instead she focused on what she called “the skilful management of attention.” Rather than chemotherapy, she focused on her daily walks; rather than thoughts of her funeral, she focused on movies and the occasional 6:30 Martini.
To the best of my memory I’ve resisted positive thinking ever since I first heard about it and my best guess for why that may be is that a good portion of my identity is rooted in so-called “negative” thinking*. Were you to ask me to think positively you’d get a flat “no”, but ask me to manage my attention skilfully and, if we can agree on what “skilfully” means, I’m all ears.
The anthropologist Carlos Castenada once said “The trick [for happiness] is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.” I think it’s easier for me to think “negatively” because I’m accustomed to that way of thinking but, as Castenada points out, the amount of time I dedicate to making myself miserable (by how I allocate my attention) is the same amount time it would take to make myself “happy” by instead directing my attention, over and over, to those things that comfort and please me, even in the face of devastating circumstances.
*Perhaps the dichotomy of positive and negative is too simplistic of a model to apply to things as complex as thoughts?
See also: I wrote a short essay for StoneWater Zen a few years ago in response to a prompt by David Loy, a Buddhist scholar: When your mind changes, the world changes. And when we respond differently to the world, the world responds differently to us.