Millions watched in awe as he glided backwards on stage while his limbs made strides to move forward. He then suddenly spun one full turn, stopped to face his audience and simultaneously touched his hat and his crotch. Michael Jackson had not only mastered the moonwalk, but the art of capturing our attention. So have comedians, actors, athletes, influencers, public speakers, politicians, marketing gurus and advertising executives. More than ever, your attention is one of the most sought after commodities in the world.
That’s why Google, Facebook and nearly every other social media platform track you relentlessly. They pinpoint where you are, the websites you visit, your interests, your economic and educational status. They eavesdrop on your conversations through innocent sounding technologies with names such as Siri and Alexa. In 2022, spying on you allowed Google to rake in $283 billion, Facebook $117 billion and TikTok $11 billion. These platforms deliver advertisements with the accuracy of a sniper. Online advertisers measure their success in entering your awareness by the “cost per click.”
Attention now makes the world go round. The world is obsessed with finding ways to cash in on capturing our minds. Today journalists concern themselves with growing their Twitter fan base to market themselves. Meteorologists and news anchors perform choreographed dance moves on TikTok. Instead of discovering the next great novelist, publishers sign multi-million dollar contracts with celebrities, politicians and high profile criminals. Some who can’t write books. Why? Name recognition guarantees the tome sail into your stream of consciousness.
Your Attention is Valuable
Consider this: the 50 highest paid athletes take in more than $3 billion a year, an average of $60 million for each player. Contrast that to the average salaries of teachers, firefighters, police, social workers and other civil servants – $41,000 per year – and our priorities become crystal clear: Above all, entertain us!
Our attention is traded on the stock exchanges of the world. We agree to give it in exchange for something we deem valuable. If you entertain me, help me deal with a physical or mental ailment or promise to make me rich or famous or attractive, I will lend you my eyes and ears. In the fine print, I sentence my privacy rights to gang assault.
Technology has made it nearly impossible to evade attention profiteers. Phone notifications, pop up ads, animated billboards, electronic flyers, mass emails, click bait and robo calls are just a few of the means to get you thinking about something you never asked for. The constant online distraction has led the average human attention span to drop to eight seconds – less than that of a goldfish – according to a 2015 study by Microsoft.
The quest to breach our awareness has created a class of people who are famous, not for mastering an art or curing disease, but for trespassing into our consciousness. Think Kardashians (one family member’s net worth is an estimated $1.8 billion). Influencers are experts at grabbing our attention and funneling it into some other enterprise. Think Oprah (estimated net worth of $2.5 billion). These attention harvesters accumulate astronomical wealth because we listen to them.
Reclaiming Our Inner Space
Your attention is clearly precious to those who put a dollar figure on it. But what is attention? The root meaning of the word is to “stretch toward.” When we attend to something or someone we are pulled outside of ourselves to appreciate something. While corporations, celebrities, athletes and professional attention grabbers compete for a moment of consideration, one thing is clear: we need to invest some attention on ourselves and reestablish our inner sanctity. When we do, we discover love is a form of attention. When you care about someone, you study them closely. You know their scent, the way they walk, their voice, the meaning of their facial expressions. You think about them often and seek to understand their needs. Loved ones occupy space within us. This is also how we care for our homes, our pets, gardens, our bodies.
Not all love is the same as it can take on different qualities. For example, it can be handled as a commodity and become conditional. “I will take an interest in you if … (fill in the blank).” We are prone to grant our attention to others if they meet specific criteria. Women may fawn over men who are tall, dark and handsome, perhaps rich or charismatic. Men will lavish a woman who appears youthful and has a preferred hair color or body type with gifts, luxury vacations or jewels. Many factors can enter the equation, including a potential partner’s beliefs, their past, upbringing or educational level. When two parties find each other acceptable, negotiations begin. Such relationships resemble binding contracts more than the mystery or magic of loving.
Living Motivelessly Aware
Is there a non-negotiable form of attention, of love? Can we attend to another without seeking a return on our investment? Is it possible to allow others into our sacred field of awareness without calculating their worth? Are we capable of perception without seeking a result?
In Beyond the Sphere, I suggested there is such a form of observation described as Motiveless Awareness. This is a pure, innate form of mindfulness stripped of all seeking of outcomes, devoid of any goals. It simply is. Everyone is capable of incorporating motiveless awareness in their daily lives. It requires no special skills and can be present while washing dishes, dressing a child for school, riding the subway, eating a meal or watching the moon rise in the night sky.
Try it now. Wherever you are, just observe what you see, what you hear, what you smell. It might be the swaying branches of a tree or the sound of passing cars. Maybe you hear a dog barking in the distance or spot a bird clinging to a utility wire. Maybe the scent of wood burning in a fireplace comes to the fore. Appreciate how light touches things, bringing out colors and creating shadows. Notice how a child runs giggling or how an old man shuffles his feet to move. Turn your awareness loose, open it to whatever is present. Don’t stop to compare or evaluate the things that enter your consciousness. Just welcome and experience them.
Once motiveless awareness becomes natural as breathing, you can explore what is taking place within you. Without trying to take any action, watch how feelings emerge in situations. For example, when someone says something you find insulting, make contact with whatever emotion emerges without naming it or evaluating it. Stay with your feelings. Let them arise and flower, revealing themselves to you. They are neither good nor bad because there is no longer a goal or standard to measure them against. This process sheds light on your true inner condition and leads to deeper self-understanding.
Let motiveless awareness operate when thoughts arise.. In the same way you would take in the shape of a tree, observe your thoughts without trying to edit them. Thoughts are the product of past experience arising in reaction to present circumstances. They may be as faulty as our recollections and should not automatically be accepted as true. Often our predictions of what will happen prove false.
When we look within, it’s critical we understand the nature of our observation because the quality of your attention is the change you seek. If you look upon yourself with suspicion, distrust or loathing, it will distort what you see. It will create inner conflict and stress. However, when you look at yourself with patience, compassion, absent any judgment, comparison or condemnation, you are transformed. You become centered on a loving state of being which shapes how you relate to yourself, to others and to all things. You respond fully to life with your whole being – heart, body and mind – no longer reacting to life with a fearful mind bent on control.
Jesus exhorted us to love others as ourselves. Problem is we do. Too many have learned to look back on their lives with harsh, judgmental eyes. We habitually view ourselves in a poor light. Religions reinforce this dim view of humanity through such beliefs as original sin or the idea that the self or ego is a barrier to enlightenment.
Motiveless attention lets us experience life as always new, innocent, free of the past. We may still hear the inner critic going on about something or other, but we don’t instantly accept its judgments or projections. Instead, it becomes a voice whose pronouncements are examined with curiosity and patience. We listen, yet now consider its perspective to be one of many.
With awareness untethered to a motive, we reclaim our inner space from attention poachers and the incessant chatter of our minds. In this quiet space we find our ability to pay attention is inseparable from our capacity to give and receive love. Affection, empathy and compassion exist beyond the strident march of technology. So take heart. Artificial intelligence simply cannot copy our ability to appreciate beauty and goodness, our capacity to care for ourselves, for one another and all living things. What makes us fully human will remain immeasurable.
Al Guart is a Pulitzer Prize nominated investigative journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Post and Agence France Presse. He also produced in-depth television news segments for CBS News. He is author of the groundbreaking book, Beyond the Sphere: Encounters with the Divine, which explores the powerful impact Divine Visitations have had on humanity.