- In the High Desert -
My brother is here visiting us this weekend and so yesterday we all got in the car and took a drive up into the High Desert above where we live and visited one of my favorite places on earth: The Joshua Tree National Park.
Many people don’t even know what a Joshua tree is and have likely never seen one because Joshua Trees only grow in a very specific climate like that of a desert region at a higher altitude. Although I’ve seen many Joshua Trees, whenever I drive through the Joshua Tree Park and see all that exotic-looking foliage sprouting up from mountains of stone boulders, I always feel like I have been transported to another planet. I find it all stunningly beautiful, especially at this time of year when the desert is carpeted with spring wildflowers for as far as the eye can see.
On our visit yesterday a car full of college-age students pulled up next to where we had parked and I was astonished to see that as they got out of their car they barely glanced at the stunning beauty surrounding them before immediately proceeding to a nearby picnic table where they all pulled out their smartphones to check for emails and send out texts.
The scene reminded me of some recent research I came across: 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 becoming distracted.
As I think of it, those students yesterday spent almost exactly eight seconds of observing the excruciatingly beautiful world of nature calling out to them before diverting to their smartphones, essentially missing it all. For me, this was an almost perfect icon of the spiritual dilemma experienced by so many people in today’s culture as people miss what their everyday lives have to offer because they don’t pay attention to what their lives are teaching them - always multitasking, unable and unwilling to focus on the revelations each moment presents.
As I observed those students give eight seconds of their attention yesterday, I was reminded of the teachings of the ancient, 4th century desert monks who went out to live their lives in the wilderness as faithful followers of Jesus. At the very heart of the “rule of life” for these ancient monastics was the practice of keeping focused and 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.
It seems to me that none of us can ever really stay focused in our everyday lives if all we give it is eight seconds. Of course, you don’t have to go out to a desert to practice a discipline of paying closer attention to life. Just unplug once in a while, keep focused, and see what “bubbles up” in a beautiful world just waiting to be noticed.
Emily Dickinson wrote:
Life is so astonishing,
it leaves little time for anything else.