What are we going to do about our short attention spans?!

10 mins read.

How’s your attention span? These days, people are complaining of being more scatter-brained than ever – some studies even suggest that we may have the attention span of your average guppy!

Having a short attention span affects everything from being able to get much done through to feelings of restlessness, lack of inner peace, AND boredom. 

I’ll talk more about this in the context of boredom because, as mentioned in Searching relief from tedium, boredom arises from diminished meaning and attention span. However, lengthening our attention span will be of huge benefit in most other areas of our life as well. So do read on … !

Got spare time?!

All this spare time! Finally I can read all those novels, or write my own! Or study Italian! Or meditate! Or sort out all my drawers! Or learn all about Buddhism!

Ironically, however, in these endless days of the Pandemic, people are reporting to getting even less done than usual. (Might explain why I started writing these boredom articles back in May …) With so many crises erupting — such as the headline today that almost one person a minute is now dying from COVID in the United States — nothing seems like nearly so much fun anymore. And in this context, it seems harder to get anything to hold our attention for long.

#3 cause of boredom: short attention span

We can only get things done if we can keep our focus. With all the fears and uncertainties floating around, a lot of people are finding it hard to concentrate.

From the article quoted here:

Multiply that experience across billions of people, and you’ll get a sense of how much boredom the world is facing right now. The problem is exacerbated for people with difficult home lives, people who have lost their jobs and can’t afford rent, and even for the swaths of Americans still showing up in person for work: the more stress we experience, the more at risk we are for losing our ability to focus and find meaning.

Even if we find something meaningful to do, we have to be able to focus on it to not feel bored or restless.

Pick up the phone syndrome

To take writing this blog as an example — although in theory I find it meaningful, have hundreds of ideas for it, and some times am focused and in flow, at other times I am too distracted to focus on writing sufficiently for it to hold my interest and I don’t really want to do it. To deal with this restlessness I distract myself further with, for example, non-essential tasks or, more pointless still, seeing what everyone has been up in the last 15 minutes according to Facebook or the news – “I will just take a quick break to check!” Of course that just undermines my attention span even more, and I end up feeling more restless, not less.

(I read today in one of these breaks that Dolly Parton gets up at 3am, prays and meditates, and then writes for 4 hours before making breakfast for herself and her husband. Impressive, eh?! Clearly it can be done …)

In this age of distraction, we can find almost infinite distractions when bored – however, what we are doing when we give in to restlessness is just strengthening that habit, becoming more restless. If we want to not feel bored we have to pay MORE attention, not less, so that we feel immersed and find what we are doing enjoyable and valuable.

Sometimes boredom arises because we bite off more than we can chew. If we find things too hard, we cannot engage with them so we can get fed up with them — like throwing a Rubik cube to one side, “This is boring!” We can make this mistake with Buddhism as well, if we launch with expectations into teachings we’re not ready for. Although identifying with our potential is always important, we also need to be skillful and start where we are, building up a repertoire of understanding and experience. So rather than immediately trying, say, to master Ocean of Nectar (600 pages of Madhyamika philosophy), we’d be better off immersing ourselves in an easier book and base our meditation practice on genuine experience, building up our wisdom over time.

If the teachings ever seem boring, it is generally because we don’t really understand them or are not practicing them. If you find yourself getting bored with Dharma, my suggestion is always to return to those aspects of Dharma that work for you, that got you interested in the first place – whatever those are, everyone is different. Get that back, re-engage, and, on that foundation, you can then go back to that difficult subject without getting bent out of shape if it’s hard. Dharma progress is based on feeling happy and confident, not feeling worried or inadequate because we don’t understand everything.

Valuable, interesting, enjoyable

Buddhism specializes in finding meaning in life AND increasing our attention span or ability to concentrate, therefore providing the perfect antidote to these two causes of boredom. If we can find meaning in what we are doing — find it valuable, interesting, and enjoyable as I explain here – it is not too hard to overcome our distractions. Focusing on it, the boredom will go away. Eventually we’ll be in the zone. 

We must understand that our creativity comes alive when we spend time alone focusing on our projects without distractions.

From a Buddhist technical point of view, to maintain interest and attention span requires what is called the “object-ascertaining mental factors.” A mental factor is a type or state of mind.

First we need “aspiration”, defined as “a mental factor that focuses on a desired object and takes an interest in it.” We can become interested in developing more love, for example, by meditating on the benefits of doing it and disadvantages of not doing it. Buddha explained the benefits of every meditation he taught, probably because he knows how our monkey minds need incentive. We can do something similar for tasks as well — if I bother to take a bit more time to think about why I am writing this blog, for example, that gets me in the mood.

Aspiration leads to firm apprehension, where we can hold our object firmly and understand it more deeply. This gives rise to mindfulness, which in turn gives rise to concentration. These mental factors will directly oppose our lack of attention span.

Moreover, concentration gives rise to wisdom, with which we can solve our problems permanently. You can read more about these five object-ascertaining mental factors in How to Understand the Mind.

Why the modern world is bad for your brain

Let me just add a little plug here for training in concentration – not only will it overcome boredom, it will also lead to a lot of other benefits. Check out this rather sobering but useful recent article in the media, as well as this incredibly helpful guest article partly inspired by it: Digital addiction and a plan for recovery

I won’t go too much into it here, except to say that completely unchecked distractions are what really destroy us. And it is concentration, not distraction, that brings us peace and joy. Here is a wonderful explanation of why, from Introduction to Buddhism:

When the mind is stilled by concentration, the delusions subside and the mind becomes extremely lucid. At the moment, our minds are intractable, refusing to cooperate with our virtuous intentions; but concentration melts the tension in our body and mind and makes them supple, comfortable and easy to work with.

See, it is concentration that melts the tension in our body and mind, not endless scrolling through our Instagram feeds! (with the exception of Gen Samten’s kadampa.turtles – that HELPS our concentration 😁)

We (at least I) get pulled in by our gadgets because we are addicted, but also in the mistaken assumption that they will help us relax — but do they, do they really?! And, even if they do in smaller quantities, and can sometimes be useful in smaller quantities, the sheer amount of time we are spending following our distractions is what characterizes our modern age perhaps more than anything else. An age that is leading to unprecedented amounts of anxiety, depression, and other mental ills. A bit more from Introduction to Buddhism

It is difficult for a distracted mind to become sufficiently acquainted with its object to induce spontaneous realizations, because it feels as if the mind is here and the object there.

Spontaneous realizations can be understood as having to make no effort – we gain effortless insights or mixing with our object, which might be love, for example, or impermanence, or any of the stages of the path to enlightenment. When we cannot mix our mind with its object, that sense of separation is actually what induces tension, because it causes dualistic pushing and grasping in the mind.

We may already have learned a lot of good objects to concentrate on that will make us so un-bored and so happy – from just our breath to love to the clarity of our mind to bliss & emptiness – but our mind won’t stabilize on them, even if we understand them intellectually, because we are too much in the habit of following our other thoughts. We all need to train in concentration if we want peace.

A concentrated mind, however, enters into its object and mixes with it, and, as a result, realizations of the stages of the path are quickly attained.

Notice the word “quickly”. As opposed to following all our distractions, on the other hand, when any mental development we manage to get around to is slow and arduous. Why would we want to stretch out our spiritual path unnecessarily? We can get the same results far more quickly and with far less hassle if we just bother to concentrate a bit more. And it is not as difficult as you may think – fact be told, it is hugely less painful and less tiring than continually chasing after distractions.

Normally our mind is moving all over the place. When we allow it to become still and stable by focusing single-pointedly on a meaningful object, it becomes peaceful, it becomes deep. This starts from our first meditations on the breath right through to being absorbed into the most profound mind of all, the clear light of bliss:

Through stabilizing this meditation the movement of my inner winds of conceptions will cease. 
Thus, I will perceive a fully qualified clear light. 
~ The Hundreds of Deities of the Joyful Land

If you put a glass down, it won’t move until you move it. Wouldn’t you like a mind like that, staying on whatever wise or blissful thought you want for as long as you want?! Eventually our mind of concentration becomes like Mount Meru, completely unmoved by the winds of conception.

Retreat season 2021

By the way, if this has inspired you to up your concentration game, it’s excellent timing because we are just around the corner from our traditional retreat month (January), and there are umpteen online retreats to choose from in January 2021. Never has it been easier!! I say more about retreat and list some of your options in this article: Doing meditation retreat.

Getting going 

If you are new or kind of new, check out these hopefully practical articles for ways in which to get started in training in concentration using the breath, the clarity of the mind, or turning the mind to wood. And there is a free talk on learning to meditate live-streaming on New Year’s Day. 

Over to you. Any questions? Please share anything you have found helpful in improving your attention span.

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Improving our focus 

Digital addiction and a plan for recovery