Friday, January 22, 2016

Eight Seconds

"That Perfect Moment"
- Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House -

A fascinating if not troubling op-ed piece in today’s New York Times reported that the average attention span for most people in today’s culture has fallen from twelve seconds to an alarmingly low eight seconds. Attention span was defined as the amount of concentrated time on a task before become distracted.

In today’s article, columnist Timothy Egan lamented his own inability to pay attention in the moment for anything longer than eight seconds:

I can no longer wait in a grocery store line, or linger for a traffic light,
or even pause long enough to let a bagel pop from the toaster,
without reflexively reaching for my smartphone.

As I think about it, my guess is that many of us can probably empathize with Mr. Eagan’s lamentation (he said that this weekend he is planning to go out into the Mojave desert to spend some time learning how to pay attention again).

Interestingly enough, the ancient, 4th century desert monks also went out to live their lives in the wilderness as faithful followers of Jesus. At the heart of the “rule of life” for these ancient monastics was the practice of paying constant attention – engaging in a discipline of being awake and alert without distractions in every present moment:

When you are alone praying and meditating- pay attention, keep focused.
When you are working in the fields, pay attention, keep focused.
When you share a meal with your fellow monks or when you welcome guests,
pay attention, keep focused.
When you feel strong and healthy, pay attention.
When the heat of the desert bakes you to the bone, keep focused.
When the morning sun is brilliant and when the skies turn black with clouds,
pay attention, keep focused.

Although these words were written many centuries ago, the wisdom they offer is a powerful antidote to the spiritual poison of the eight-second attention span in our own contemporary times.

Like those ancient desert monks, the Buddha also suggested that paying attention and staying focused in moment was at the heart of a journey to enlightenment. He taught that mindfulness and compassion were the two most important disciplines to practice for anyone who seeks deeper peace and greater wisdom.

When we start to pay attention to our life it’s amazing what will be revealed to us.

I am reminded of something I read recently in one of my books of Buddhist essays:

When you pay attention to your everyday life
You will discover something truly wonderful.
Our regular, old, pointless lives are actually incredibly beautiful –
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly joyful!

It seems to me that none of us can ever really pay attention to our everyday lives if all we give it is eight seconds; and of course, you don’t have to go out to a desert to practice playing closer attention to life. Just turn off the smartphone the next time you go to Starbucks and see what bubbles up.

Emily Dickinson wrote:

Life is so astonishing,
it leaves little time for anything else.


  1. This made me smile. The smartphone is addictive and annoying and its noises and interruptions destroy attention. How come I know that but still get sucked into it?! But I can't write any more...I think I just got a text message ;-)

    1. As I was writing this post I got about 4 text messages--yikes!