Short Attention Span
It seems undeniable that we live in times when faster is generally equated with better, at least at the surface level. Many of us feel like the pace of life has gotten too fast, even out of control. One manifestation of this mindset is our urge to save time, even just a few seconds, whenever we can. This pervasive ideology has a connection to the notion of instant gratification, which might be somewhat or quite familiar for many of us. Some people argue that civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span. As a result, we often rush through our actions and activities without making time to be present. This can be called the short attention span perspective. The short attention span perspective can be characterized as a continuous movement of the mind without clear focus. In contrast to the short attention span view, we can think of the focused perspective as clear and focused attention to one moment in time. In other words, while the short attention span can drive us to rush through the present moment, the focused perspective can acts as an excellent way to prepare us for the long view.
The Long View
Obviously, all things in life have an inherent pace to them. That is, some things happen at fast speed, like lightning, others happen slower, like the rotation of the earth around the sun. The focused perspective mindset, by its own nature, concentrates our attention, if very briefly, on specific, discrete aspects of our experience, while the long view tries to deepen our understanding in terms of time.
When we favor only the focused perspective, it is difficult for us to gain perspective and notice changes, tendencies and patterns that develop, shift and transform over time. When we favor the long view approach only, it may be more difficult to relate to the specific circumstances of the present event.
Clearly, focusing on one point is the first step towards maintaining our attention over time. Thus, our focus on the present moment provides the point of access into the long view. The interplay between these two views is exemplified by the Long Now Foundation, an organization concerned with “fostering long-term responsibility” and when they say long term they mean thinking not in terms of months or years but in terms of the next 10000 years. The idea is to link our present actions to long term thinking.
Concentration and Meditation
From a Yogic point of view, we could interpret the focused perspective as the traditional limb of Yoga often translated as Concentration (Dharana), focusing our attention on one point. On the other hand, sustaining our attention on the same point over a period of time is the Meditation (Dhyana) limb of Yoga. We can think about the latter as an expression of the long view approach.
Interplay between Focused Perspective and Long View in Yoga
Yoga has been around, according to different sources, for at least a few millennia, yet its teachings are still astonishingly relevant and applicable today. Thus, it seems that even though the tradition of Yoga has been preserved and transformed over a long period of time, its application, which can only happen one moment at a time, is actualized through the focused perspective. That is, the teachings handed down over time are lived and put into practice in the realm of the focused perspective.
Moreover, for many of us, the short attention span perspective can have a dramatic impact on our Yoga practice, in any of its manifestations. For instance, sometimes, especially with practices that are challenging for us, like sitting still for a specific amount of time, breathing mindfully or moving into a specific posture, we might feel inclined to try to get our practice over quickly, so that we end up rushing through it. As a consequence, our practice betrays the very essence of Yoga, a journey of self-discovery. Rushing through our actions prevents us from experiencing the practice at all levels, particularly keeping us from learning by observing how we deal with frustration, impatience and challenging situations.
Taking the long view as the background of our experience can serve as a reminder that Yoga is a personal journey of self-discovery, by definition a lifelong process. Knowing that we have the rest of our lives to practice, can give us the patience to accept where we are today, hence enabling us to immerse in the specific practice mindfully. Not long ago I read the wise opinion of a well respected Yoga master, David Swenson, where he stated that “We must think in terms of decades when practicing and teaching yoga. The strongest trees in the forest grow the most slowly.”
Taking this long view, can foster a different approach to our practice, so that we practice intelligently, that is mindfully and at our own level so that we can continue practicing steadily over the years. Another well respected Yoga master, David Williams, provides insight into this process in his student newsletter by saying that “The key is being able to continue practicing Yoga for the rest of your life. From over 30 years of observing thousands of people practicing Yoga, I have realized that those who continue are the ones who are able to figure out how to make it enjoyable. They look forward to their daily practice and nothing can keep them from finding the time to do it. It becomes one of the most pleasant parts of their day.”
Maybe we can meditate on this question: How would my practice be if I remember that I have the rest of my life to practice?
Simple guided meditation with Rubén