It’s been such a long time since I’ve written to you, almost half a year? Everything continues to rearrange itself, everything continues to stay completely the same. How have you endured, and how have you changed?
I’ve wanted to write to you many times. I’ve been thinking about love and honour. What we owe each other. How to assert my own boundaries and not fear my own power. The swampy muck is thick and fertile, but the growing sense that I know very little, maybe nothing at all, has made me hold back. Drafts from months ago collect dust. I am here to try again, to trust that sharing in and of itself creates loving energy and wisdom.
Where should I begin? Today: “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” (Mary Oliver)
So. In 2005, a study found that persistent interruptions at work led to a 10-point drop in IQ. Recently, it was reported that the average attention span of students and office workers has been whittled down to somewhere from one to three minutes. Attention is a dwindling resource, and you already know this. You’ve been told by numerous reports and experts. You’ve felt it yourself — the involuntary reach for your phone, the automated tap on the WhatsApp, Telegram, Instagram, or TikTok icon, the leaping of your mind from one topic or image to another without being able to stay on one for long. The moment when you look up and realize you’ve blinked an hour away scrolling through random posts fed to you by algorithms. When you lose focus even as someone you care for is telling you about something important. Yes, our attention spans are whittling down to nothingness. What’s new, Kia Yee? Well, I’m not here to harp on about media platforms, technology or attention spans in general. You already know what stands in the way of your beautiful, life-giving ability to give attention. I want you to look with me at love, at devotion.
What is devotion? Devotion is a matter of sustained commitment, promising some level of consistency in intention and/or action. It is a matter of durational love, love that knows loyalty, love that has staying power. What is attention? Attention, to me, is a matter of three overlapping qualities or actions: presence + focus + witnessing.
To be present — to root in the now of where you are, who you’re with, what is happening
To focus — to intentionally direct your mind at a specific point
To witness — to exercise your gaze with purpose
Let’s go back to Oliver. In Oliver’s statement, to even begin devoting yourself to anything requires you to give it attention. Durational love or commitment, then, is only possible if we first exercise our gaze with intention at a specific point in the here and the now. If any element (presence/ aware gaze/ specific, intentional point) is absent, devotion is not possible. Is that true? Consider the people, visions and things you love or want to love with devotion. You know this to be true.
Leaving aside the usual narratives around social media and technology, what are you devoted to, i.e. where and to what do you give your attention? Is there a TV show you care about? People you love and look at, listen to? Do you look out at the sky when it rains? Where does the possibility of devotion flash up in your life?
In my life, devotion has been and continues to get tangled up with discipline. Fueled in large part by my anxieties around time and controlling time, I have exercised commitment and love as a matter of duty and repetition. Devoting myself to writing meant I had to write regularly with routine consistency (à la Haruki Murakami). Devoting myself to a person meant I had to show up like clockwork, and to stick the relationship out as it was even when romantic love and attraction had flagged and probably died. To fall off routine was to fail to devote, and to fail to devote was to fail at loving and being true of heart. I was afraid of seeing myself that way.
How does discipline misunderstand devotion? It misunderstands devotion by reducing devotion to its formal qualities, to (what appears to be) its treatment of time. Muddled up with discipline, devotion becomes a matter of clocking in on time and clocking in the hours. It is reduced to an unforgiving schedule without room for human flux and fluidity. It is reduced to a matter of consistent effort which forgets that the spirit and intention of the effort matters.
But surely devotion involves discipline. What did I write above? Sustained commitment, durational love. If we follow the trail of those words, then devotion is a matter of an extended period of time, right, through which your love endures?
How are we seeing time here? As a line extending out from now into the future? As a significant volume of spacetime which can be measured? Let’s go back to Oliver’s “beginning” — attention, which requires us to be present, to focus, and to witness. To be here right now. You might see time as a line extending from past to present to future. But if you are here right now, time sharpens into a single point. As the Philosopher in The Courage to be Disliked tells the Youth, “life is a series of dots, a series of moments. If you can grasp that, you will not need a story any longer.” The time of life is not lengthy or voluminous. It is speckling and dappling, flashes of colour and light that come and go.
When we see devotion as a matter of discipline, we are focused on accumulation, on time adding up in terms of volume to take on an arc, a story. We are thinking about the future, reaching for the point at which “devotion” (i.e. discipline) proves itself to be true. But devotion, as Oliver expresses, begins right here, right now. If we reach for the future, we lose focus. We grow absent. We make poor witnesses because we leap back and forth through time, from image to image or thought to thought, losing track of details.* We are unable to give attention, and therefore unable to begin to devote ourselves to anything.
Devotion doesn’t begin in the here & now and end in the future. If devotion begins with attention, it comes into existence again each time we pay attention. Devotion exists as long as we make the loving effort to begin — to focus right here and now — and do that over and over again. Sometimes we might not be able to show up because we are not well, or because life gets in the way. But guess what? If devotion is a dot and not an extending line, as long as we come back and begin, there — there devotion is again.
Devotion is a matter of beginning, and beginnings do not accumulate. Each time we begin, we must make the whole effort. We must re-enter time. We must mark the dot upon the always blank page. The writer Ursula K. Le Guin knew: “Love doesn't just sit there, like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all the time, made new.”
We can be true of heart here and now. And I believe we all have things we wish to devote ourselves better to. The questions that follow, I think, are:
What does it mean to begin?
How do we begin?
Do we have the confidence?
Do we have the courage?
I will come to these questions the next time I begin, here, again.
*Multi-tasking, in fact, is a lie. When you '“multi-task”, your mind has to shift its focus with each leap. Even a glance at your phone which might take three seconds requires this. Multi-tasking leads to the “switch-cost effect”, which degrades cognitive processing power.
If you’re keen to hear more about attention, focus & tech, you should listen to Johann Hari, the author of Stolen Focus: Why You Can't Pay Attention--And How to Think Deeply Again, here.
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