Last week, I had the opportunity to visit the magnificent Sierra Mountains in northern California, and to spend a week in a little mountain resort community called Pinecrest. While the amenities available at the site are lovely, our experience was reasonably rustic: my girlfriend and I holed up in the cabin her family owns, made of old beams, some of which have the bark still on. A bat named Bob lives in the rafters of the living room, and sometimes swoops down at dusk for a test flight before leaving for the hunt through an unseen hole in the roof. We spent our days hiking around the lake or up to mountaintops, swimming, reading to each other on the deck, cooking and eating. Nights were about wine and the fireplace and more reading and looking at some of the clearest stars I’ve ever seen; they reflected in the glassy lake surface like an inverse world.
Our cell phones didn’t work, and we had no internet access. I brought my computer in case I wanted to write; I opened it twice to load photos onto it from a camera, and wrote longhand in my paper journal.
From the first day I arrived, still adjusting to being a mile or so above sea level, I started thinking about the quality of attention I have for my day to day activities. So many people are writing about attention these days: if the media are to be believed, our current society doesn’t have any. Starting with my childhood and the so-called “MTV generation,” right up through today’s endless barrage of trivia from social media sites and bite-sized Twitter updates, the rise of ADD diagnoses has been matched by a rise of ADD culture, a world where supposedly, none of us has the focus or stamina anymore to give our attention to anything longer than two minutes or 140 characters.
I’d like to call bullshit on this assertion, if only because I think that aside from those people who legitimately suffer from ADD, attention is a skill that can be cultivated. And that week in the mountains alerted me to how vitally important a skill it is: not just for maintaining productivity, but for self-knowledge, for living an embodied life, for happiness.
At this very moment, I am sitting in a cafe, doing my work away from home and its myriad distractions. However, I’m also aware that I’m cold, that Gary Puckett is pouring from the cafe speakers (he sings, ironically, “Willpower, it’s now or never…”), I’m getting emails and texts all the time, and I have no fewer than 11 tabs open in my browser. I am definitely not working in an environment free of distraction, nor am I successfully avoiding engaging them. (For reference: I meant to do this post about two hours ago.) Often I will go to a cafe where I don’t have internet access, just to focus my mind better. But especially because I keep my own schedule, I am terribly prone to distraction.
But Pinecrest didn’t allow for that. We didn’t even really have TV, just a giant ancient Sanyo we could play from a selection of 20 old VHS tapes on. (One night we watched Legend of Drunken Master.) At any given moment, I could:
3. Read aloud
4. Sit and look at things
5. Do some physical activity
6. Cook, eat, wash or some other basic human activity
My girlfriend also cross-stitched. During the week she finished her pattern and I finished reading her an entire novel. I wrote three highly creative letters to a boyfriend, two of them filled with flowers I’d collected along the mountainside and pressed in a journal. I stared at weird butterflies and well-adapted succulents and gorgeous trees and a sky a color I can barely describe (we called it, alternately, “cerulean” and “bluetiful”). And something happened to me during that time.
I stopped looking at my phone. I didn’t open my computer. And my mind slowed. Colors are more vivid up there anyway, but things gained in dimension. My capacity for doing “nothing” – which is to say, to watch, listen, pay attention and breathe – increased day by day. I found myself listening to the messages of my body – I’d like to exercise today, I need more rest, I’m hungry, please stretch me out, drink some water – with much greater ease. My mind was as usual full of thoughts and ideas, but they seemed to move at a reasonable pace, without the fog that often characterizes my days in the city.
I don’t think that the entirety of this effect had to do with not having the internet at my fingertips constantly, though it certainly helped. I know that part of it was being on vacation, giving myself permission to do nothing, being surrounded by mountain air and its attendant clarity of mind. But what I’m now trying to figure out is how to translate some of that energy to my home life. What kinds of things can I do, on a day to day basis, to make my focus more pure, my mind more sharp and serene, my distractions less compelling, my attunement to myself more profound?
What would you do?