A Poverty of Attention

In common things that round us lie

Some random truths he can impart,

— the harvest of a quiet eye.

            William Wordsworth at the end of “A Poet’s Epitaph”

Photo of iPhone, candle, and the book "The Sabbath"

I don’t need a research study to tell me that my attention span has decreased since reading more on screens and digital devices. I feel it halfway through a Zoom meeting when I start to slouch and squirm. Sitting up straight and scolding myself barely check my desire to pick up my phone and do the New York Times Mini Crossword right now. Although I stay in my seat trying to listen, even the strictest self-admonishment doesn’t prevent me from mindlessly reaching for my chocolate stash or getting distracted by the blue jay that just landed on the garden arch outside my window.

More distressing than a case of the fidgets on Zoom is that I can no longer immerse myself in a book for as long as I used to. All those long summer vacation afternoons lazing in the sun with an Agatha Christie or a juicy romance, the pre-Netflix late nights when I dismissed all thoughts of an alarm clock just to read one more chapter lie far in the past. As much as I still love to read, I no longer spend hours lost in a book.

Part of the problem may be information overload. According to a 2009 study at UC San Diego, the average person reads the equivalent of 100,000 words a day. (As a point of reference this post has 506 words.) If you feel overwhelmed by all the information that lands in your email and pops up in your social media feed every day, you’re not alone. How often do you quit an article before you finish and move on to the next thing? Sorry, TLDR. (Too long, didn’t read.) As the Nobel-winning economist Herbert Simon predicted back in 1977, “A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention.” 

But surely another factor in our distractibility is that we consume those 34 gigabytes of word-stuff in short bursts across multiple digital devices. When your phone is at arm’s reach and you know that at any moment a seductive alert could notify you of a text, tweet, or coveted thumbs-up on Facebook, it’s hard to find the quiet eye that Wordsworth talks about in “A Poet’s Epitaph,” the sustained observation and musing that can harvest the gifts in the real world around you and within your own mind that lead to a new idea,  a deep thought. When I have popcorn brain, it’s hard to hear the soft voice in the cave of my heart.

So, besides loosening the tether between my phone and me, another reason I decided to try a tech Sabbath was to see if stepping away from the wealth of information my devices offer could help restore my quiet eye. I want to build a palace in time that holds a wealth of attention.

How has your ability to pay attention changed in the last ten years?

A Palace in Time with a Kingdom for All

Have you seen the Lord of the Rings? Remember the scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring when Bilbo Baggins panics because he can’t find the ring only to discover with relief that it was in his pocket? Or how he transforms for a moment from a kindly old hobbit into an unrecognizable creature with a nasty grimace – just because Gandalf encourages him to give it up? I knew I was in trouble when I started to recognize myself in Bilbo. Just like him I was in thrall to an object — but it wasn’t a magical ring.

It was my iPhone.

I don’t think of myself as particularly attached to my phone – I put it away in social situations, and I don’t miss it when I’m on retreat at New Camaldoli where the absence of cell service renders it useless, but I’ve grown more and more attached. I feel Bilbo’s panic when I misplace it and that sweet relief when I realize it’s right there in my purse. I keep it close and grab it first thing when I get up in the morning — even if it is only to use the timer for my meditation.

The thought that I was addicted made me uneasy, so when I started to hear about a practice called a tech sabbath, I was intrigued enough to try it, and I’m pained to confess to you, dear reader, I couldn’t stick with it. Imagine my shock and dismay! I like to think of myself as a poet and a nature-loving spiritual being, yet I couldn’t live without my devices for 24 hours.

What exactly is a tech sabbath? It’s rooted in the Jewish tradition of observing God’s commandment to keep the seventh day holy by resting and refraining from work. In his beautiful book The Sabbath, Abraham Joshua Heschel likens the Sabbath to “a palace in time with a kingdom for all,” framing it as “an opportunity to mend our tattered lives, to collect rather than to dissipate time.” A tech sabbath is simply when you avoid digital technology for one day a week. Why do this? In his article Should I Take a Digital Sabbath? one of the founders of the Digital Sabbath Experiment gives several reasons: to improve creativity, deepen connections with others, remember how to listen, and rest. We often turn to our devices for a quick break, but he calls this façade rest. After all, does scrolling through social media or binge-watching Netflix really refresh you?

This year I decided to give tech sabbath another try as my practice for Lent. After a lifetime of Lenten observance starting with giving up ice cream as a kid, Lent has a power that fills the sails of my self-discipline, and with a few bumps and lessons learned along the way, I more or less succeeded. In my next few posts I plan to delve into the reasons for trying this practice and share ideas for making it your own.

In the meantime, happy Easter, and blessings to my friends under the Tent of Abraham who are celebrating Ramadan and Passover. I’d love to hear from readers who observe any kind of sabbath. How do you achieve a day of rest and what does it mean to you?