Why we should neglect the right things
I’ve written a lot about why I believe having our attention stolen is so destructive. Today, I want to discuss why holding our attention is so important.
This past Saturday, I was in the presence of a remarkable man, professor, and author Belden Lane. Belden spent the last 36 years as a professor at Saint Louis University and is the other of a number of books. But what is really most important about Lane is not his academic pedigree but how he carries himself through the world.
Being around Lane, there is an overwhelming sense that you are the presence of someone who lives wholeheartedly. In a visceral sense, it feels like his chest is open, waiting for connection to what is around him. Lane is powerfully brilliant yet humble about all there is to know—and how much each individual one of us doesn’t.
Lane is a teacher in the most authentic sense of what a teacher is. A person who embodies the ideas they are hoping to transmit into the world, and professes them in a way that invites others in, invites others to want to be a part of what they are doing—a person who inspires. The kind of person that when you are in their presence, you wonder to yourself if you could be more like them.
You think, “Maybe if I studied harder? If I lived more open-heartedly? If I paid more attention?”
Harnessing the power of our attention was one of the great lessons Lane imparted to our little podcast last Saturday. (The release date is TBD … We are in post-production at the moment; I will certainly let you all know when that’s available) Lane didn’t come out and name attention directly. Our discussion was centered on experiences of awe and how to find them. But this was the secret—you can find experiences of awe all around you—if you can see them. If you can attend close enough or long enough to notice.
Neglecting the Right Things
Finding awe is about where we give our attention and how we give it.
Do we give our attention to the right things, the wrong things, in a full way or a half-assed way?
My co-host Kelley (the author of her own wonderful Substack that you should all check out) brought the concept of Apathia into the conversation. Apathia, in Stoicism, refers to a state of mind in which one is not disturbed by passions. It is freedom from chaotic emotion or excitement, or put bluntly: It is the power of freedom from emotion about the shit that doesn’t matter. It is a state where you are not enslaved by jealousy, anger, greed, or vanity.
The other way to think about this is in terms of selective attention or neglect. How do you neglect the right things and pay attention to the right things?
Neglecting the right things is step one. In a previous post on death, I touched on the subject. But the lesson, I think, is that we should give our attention to the things that inspire us to be more open-hearted and give less of our attention to the things that inspire us to become egocentric.
The more we can dissolve our egos, the more likely we are to find connection in the world around us and see awe-inspiring things. And those things are the small things. The things we miss because our attention is being sucked up in places that feed ego, jealousy, anger, greed, and vanity.
A few weeks ago, we brought a new member in our family, an English lab named Sugar. She is the gentlest, sweetest animal I have ever encountered (and I say this even though she chewed up my most expensive pair of shoes).
With this dog, I have found that I get such a kick out of taking her to exercise. She gets what we call the “zoomies” (this is clearly the technical term). Basically, she’s sprinting in circles like a maniac. And when she is in the zone, she is so joyful; you can almost see her smiling.
I find awe in watching her do that. At that moment, I’m just observing, and in the most egoless sense of the term, I feel like I fade away as my attention goes solely to her.
I read a lot about flow states and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work. When thinking about Csikszentmihalyi’s view of flow states, I think he describes a similar phenomenon to what I’m experiencing watching my dog manically run in circles. But in Csikszentmihalyi’s version of flow, these experiences are sustained and become trance-like.
Flow states feel amazing. I get in them sometimes when I write or go on long runs when I get lost thinking about things I want to write about. But with flow states, as I had understood them, it always felt as if they had to be achieved through acting or “doing something” — like a writer, a painter, or a mathematician solving the impossible proof.
Being in the presence of Lane and Sugar, I recognized that flow states could also be entered into when observing—when observing someone being so creatively and courageously open-hearted to strangers or watching my dog sprint with all the joy that exists in her body.
More often, I find myself in the flow state of doing — thinking, problem-solving, writing, and conversation, but what Lane and my dog have inspired me to want to do more often is enter flow states while observing.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger described attention as a state of "care," a deep sense of concern and engagement with the world that enables us to bring our full selves to every moment.
I want to bring my full self to more moments — while observing my kids play, my wife cook, my dog run, and even the squirrels hanging out in front of our house.
Ultimately, this way of being is a kind of meditation. Meditation is not about having nothing in your mind; it is about being a person who has control over how they orient their mind; it is about being a person who has power in how they attend to the things around them. A person with the power to give themselves over to the things that matter.