The Sacrament of Attention

We are pleased to feature another guest post from Michael Austin.

The often-used phrase “pay attention” is apt: you dispose of a limited budget of attention that you can allocate to activities, and if you try to go beyond your budget, you will fail. It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult or impossible to conduct several at once.
​​​​​—Daniel Kahneman, Thinking Fast and Slow

The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention. It is the orientation of all the attention of which the soul is capable toward God. The quality of the attention counts for much in the quality of the prayer. Warmth of heart cannot make up for it.
​​​​—Simone Weil, “Reflections on the Right Use of
​​​​ School Studies with a View to the Love of God”

A few weeks ago, I was stuck in the Denver Airport because I missed my flight. I was sitting at the gate when the boarding calls were issued, but I didn’t hear them, nor did I even notice when the plane left the runway. That’s because I was completely engrossed in a marvelous book called Thinking Fast and Slow by the Nobel prizewinning psychologist/economist Daniel Kahneman. This book’s description of attention as a limited resource, optimized by two separate mental systems, fascinated me so much that I proved Kahneman’s thesis empirically—by failing to notice the large jet airliner fifty feet away taking off without me.

At the time, though, I couldn’t be bothered with airplanes. I was too busy trying to figure out how Kahneman’s economic arguments about attention might connect to the ideas of my very favorite French religious mystic, Simone Weil, whose essay “Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God” is one of the best things ever written by anybody about anything—but especially about attention and God.

For Weil, a relationship with the divine depends on prayer, and prayer is simply the sustained paying of attention to God. But since human beings are bad at paying attention, we have to cultivate the ability to do so through study, and any study will do. This is why we should study all kinds of things; algebra, history, literature, Greek, and music can all bring us to God, not through their inherent content, but by teaching us how to pay attention.

These are two very different views of attention, of course. Kahneman sees it as a resource to be managed, while Weil sees it as a sacrifice to be placed on the altar of God. Perhaps more than anybody else, though, Latter-day Saints should see it as both. Our faith tradition has a long history of bringing valuable resources to the altar and dedicating them to the building up of a community. We call this “consecration,” and we refer to the resulting community as either “Zion” or “the Kingdom of God.”

As Saints, we covenant to consecrate our time, our talents, and our treasures to the cause of Zion. Of all of these resources, attention might be the most important commodity we offer because it is the resource that other people need the most. Casseroles are nice, of course, and we can all use a little help when we move. But we often offer dramatic gestures (or at least potato dishes) when we should really be offering meaningful human contact. Among the deepest needs of all human beings are to be appreciated, to be taken seriously, and to be considered worth paying attention to.

But paying meaningful attention to anything or anybody is difficult in the information age. Most of us now own five or six devices capable of distracting us any time and for almost any reason. Our phones buzz when we get a text and our computers ring bells when somebody comments on our Facebook posts. The entire Internet has been designed to distract our attention with links, sidebars, and pop-up ads. If people started to pay attention to stuff all of a sudden, our entire information economy would collapse. Distraction has become the guiding principle of Babylon.

And this is precisely why we cannot build Zion without consecrating our attention at the altar. Evolutionary biologists and psychologists talk a lot about “costly signaling.” Organisms of all kinds (they tell us) constantly send signals to other organisms of all kinds, who have been programmed by the guiding hand of natural selection to respond most favorably to signals that impose the greatest costs on the sender. False signals are relatively easy to send, but reacting to them can be fatal, and the more a signal costs, the more likely it is to produce the desired reaction. On the savannah, costly signaling means that a cheetah is less likely to chase a Thompson Gazelle who jumps up and down nonchalantly in the face of danger.

In a community that wants to be Zion, it means that people will not believe us when we say we love them, that we mourn with them when they mourn, or that we want comfort them when they stand in need of comfort until we are willing to give them the precious gift of our sustained and complete attention.

Comments

  1. I love, love that you weren’t paying attention and thus missed your flight. So much win with this attention-grabbing framework.

  2. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    tl;dr

  3. Been reading that book myself. I can’t say I’d miss a flight for it, but to each his own.

  4. Larry — +1

  5. Larry the Cable Guy’s comment is actually a pretty funny and insightful comment on Michael’s post–even more so if it wasn’t intended that way.

  6. This is lovely, Mike. My kids have started doing a wicked imitation of my computer zombie face, the one I make when I’m pretending to listen to them with one ear while I keep typing. It is not pretty. Another unpretty thing: how hard it is for me to just look attentively at the speaker throughout Sacrament Meeting. That requires some serious spiritual discipline, and it’s way easier than all the other occasions you mention.

  7. I tried to read this three times, but I kept getting distracted by facebook and emails and other ephemera. Having finally managed to pay the attention needed to read and absorb, I have to say this cuts deep. Thanks for synthesizing these perspectives and offering up a useful charge: that we might strive to consecrate our attention to those we care for in our effort to build Zion. That’s as beautiful and important of a charge as it is challenging.

  8. Needed this. Thank you.

  9. Going to distract a lot of people by sharing this to facebook.

  10. I recently came across this quote by Mary Oliver that seems apt: “Attention without feeling … is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.” That’s the kind of attention we need to give if we want to build Zion. Thanks for this, Mike.

  11. Jason, that is an excellent quote. I wish I had known about it when I wrote this post. Is this from one of Oliver’s poems, or is it from her prose writing?

  12. The title of your article got me thinking about the Atonement, and what Christ says to Peter, James, and John on the Mount of Olives: “Could you not watch with me one hour?” Attention is definitely something the Lord asks of us. I had just never thought of it in the way you presented it. I love the way you referred to prayer as giving the Lord focused, undivided attention. That’s something for me to work on, for sure. Thanks for the insight!

  13. Mary–thanks for your feedback! I sometimes like to imagine how that scene would have played out if Peter, James, and John had access to smart phones and Facebook!

  14. Wow! I needed this. Thank you! I really needed this.

  15. Mike: it’s from her new book about her life together with Molly Malone. I learned about it here: http://www.brainpickings.org/2015/01/20/mary-oliver-molly-malone-cook-our-world/

  16. A few years ago I almost missed a flight (even though I was sitting right at the gate) because of a book I was reading. It was a novel about a serial killer, so…a little different from from your experience, but kind of similar too. It’s very rare that I offer that sort of attention during prayer, or even to someone sitting next to me. Obviously something I need to work on.