If someone turns to you and says “Imagine a chihuahua!” and you begin seeing – almost involuntarily seeing – those tiny paws, that wagging tail, the little smiling eyes looking fondly up at you – a whimper here, an excited shiver there – why do you ever stop imagining this? What saves you from the tragedy of death-by-thinking-of-a-chihuahua-for-too-long?
If you were to imagine a chihuahua – right now, even – I bet you wouldn’t start with a plan. You wouldn’t decide precisely how long you’d give to this endeavor. No, you’d plunge into it without fear of death. It’s certain that you’d survive this chihuahua-fest, exiting at a reasonable time, well before dehydration ensued. Imagining a chihuahua is usually not fatal. But why not?
Our attention spans are growing ever-shorter as we writhe in an ever-thickening jungle of notifications and texts and emails and alerts – that’s a common complaint of our digital age. We seek quiet, away from our devices, to rekindle lost powers of concentration. But even if we succeed at unplugging all the things in our lives that beep, and even if we consider what the world was like before there were any things that beeped, we see an axiom of attention everywhere in effect: attention doesn’t last, and it never did. It’s fickle and fleeting, reliably so. We needn’t bother to contemplate the danger of focusing on a chihuahua and never changing focus, for that danger will never come to pass. And it never would have come to pass in any earlier era.
And so, as we lament our distractibility, it’s easy to forget the virtue thereof. It’s easy to ignore our reliance on distractibility – on a certain baseline level of inattention – to facilitate the multi-tasking that’s necessary for life. Being totally scatterbrained is a handicap indeed, but being a little bit scatterbrained? It helps us. Flightiness, in the right amount, ensures that we’ll periodically revisit the things that need our attention, rather than getting eternally stuck on one thing.
As we go about our lives, when we focus on one thing or another, we can expect that focus to be disrupted in time, from outside or from within, and that’s good. From outside, we may hear the rumble of an airplane overhead, a car alarm, a person’s laugh – good! From inside, we might get bored with one thought – good! Hungry – good! Tired – good! Or one thought might lead to another – a chihuahua to an Irish Wolfhound and then to our childhood Dachshund “Pepper,” and from there to a friend who shares that nickname – good!
But even when our focus isn’t lost to fatigue or redirected through free-association, eventually our mind will interrupt itself, asking “What am I doing right now? How long have I been doing this? What was I doing before this?” When these questions enter our consciousness, they give us a chance to refocus – to jump out of a “rabbit hole” of one thought and continue with other lines of thought that had been suspended. There are so many forces ready to “steal” our attention that we can rest assured it will be stolen eventually – and that’s good! It’s good because it lets us move on to the next thing.
If the tragedy of death-by-thinking-of-a-chihuahua-for-too-long is so very improbable, what is the point of even considering it?
The point is to uncover a source of gratitude in our lives that might be going unnoticed. We’ve just seen that the volatility of attention is – in some ways – lifesaving. It’s lifesaving because it prevents us from getting stuck. It frees us from monomania. But we can go further. We can notice how this volatility of attention sometimes results in a “beneficial landing,” so to speak, and we can take more time to appreciate these beneficial landings.
If we could scan the history of our personal attention, seeing a timeline of what we were focusing on at any moment in our life so far, we would indeed see many unfortunate attentional shifts. We’d find many unlucky occasions when we wanted or intended to sustain focus on one particular thing, but our focus got diverted to something else. Trying to work, started checking news. Trying to read, car alarm went off. These are the times when distractibility was a nuisance.
But we would also see a lot of fortunate events, when out of the blue, we remembered something we hoped we’d remember – a friend’s birthday just popped into mind. Or when our focus was suddenly diverted to an important task we had been ignoring. Or when our mind suddenly jumped out of a destructive spiral of thoughts – ruminating about some past failure, or catastrophizing about some future malady (death by chihuahua?) – and we were freed to move on, to focus on another thing, something better or more important.
If we were freed, did we free ourselves? Or was this liberation a lucky thing that happened to us?
Assuming we had been completely lost in thought, then the sudden awareness of being lost – that’s a thing that happened to us. We had been considering the chihuahua and only the chihuahua. It was our brain – an object – that automatically, involuntarily raised the question “What am I doing?” We didn’t will that question to arise. And so it’s reasonable to classify that question’s emergence in our conscious awareness as an event that happened to us, rather than as an event that was made to happen by us.
If you’re convinced that gratitude is health-giving, and you’re looking for more things to be grateful for, consider such events. Any time your attention is returned to you – any time your mind jumps out of a rabbit hole and lets you choose how to refocus – that’s a good thing that happened to you and it’s something you can be grateful for. Any time your attention lands on a topic that you wanted to invest in, that’s a good thing that happened to you and you’re “lucky” at that particular moment.
You might wonder why a person would want to look for gratitude here, at the microscopic level of attentional transitions, when there are so many things in the larger scale of our lives to be grateful for. One reason to look here is that attention shifts are simple, they’re real, and as they happen, they’re fresh, they’re recent, they’re new.
I am grateful for my life partner, and I feel fortunate when I think about our relationship. But there’s complexity in considering who I’ve become as a person in the twenty years since we met, who he has become as a person in all that time, and how our relationship has grown in all that time. I feel incredibly lucky for all that time, but it’s a luck that’s been evolving; it’s not a new, sudden, simple kind of luck. To contemplate it requires more than a moment.
On the other hand, if I’ve gotten lost scrolling through news reports – a bombing here, an oil spill there, one calamity after another with no end in sight – but if I suddenly remember to take a deep breath, then that breath is like a simple gift I’ve been given out of nowhere. A sudden blessing. The random shift in attention from bad news to calming breath – that’s a lucky occurrence, a good thing that happened to me just now, right this moment, newer than the news.
If we tune into the good luck that can be found in our involuntary attentional transitions, then we can sit down and do nothing – that’s to say, we can meditate – and feel really lucky all the while. When we try to focus on our breathing, and inevitably find ourselves getting lost in thought, that distraction might seem to be unfortunate. But when we realize that we’ve been thinking, this realization gives us a chance to return to breathing, and we can feel lucky for this chance. We can spend an hour and experience hundreds of such lucky events. Breathing, then thinking, then having the good luck to notice the thinking and now be able to return to breathing. Just sitting down with no goal at all, we can spend minutes or hours feeling we’ve been the beneficiary of good luck throughout.
I put this idea into practice yesterday on an urban walk. I wanted to see if I could take a long walk through my neighborhood and stay connected to my breathing – inhale, exhale – while also absorbing the sights and sounds of the city, but not thinking about anything in particular. A thoughtless, observational walk, where I wasn’t ruminating or reminiscing or trying to plan my evening or mentally composing an essay as I was walking. Did this happen? Not a chance. There are too many things in the city that remind me of other things – I see a restaurant and remember my last meal there with a friend from out of town. I see a rosebush and remember the time I tried to photograph it. I’ve tried taking a meditative urban walk many times over the years and it’s never been as “meditative” as I had hoped.
But this time, whenever my attention landed on breathing – back where I had wanted it to stay – I made a point of saying, “Oh, I’m lucky. I’m noticing my breathing again – a good thing just happened!”
I could have said to myself “Breathing – that’s what I was supposed to be concentrating on all along.” I could have considered myself unlucky that I had been distracted for so long and that my concentration had been so poor. But by focusing instead on my good luck – the good luck of spontaneously, randomly remembering to breathe, even though so many other things clamored for my attention – I came to develop a sense of awe. This was just a simple walk through the city, and yet I was experiencing one lucky event after another. Was I maintaining my focus on breathing throughout the walk? Certainly not. But was I still experiencing good fortune, finding that my attention randomly, luckily landed on breathing, time after time? Yes!
If we take more time to appreciate the “beneficial landings” of our volatile, randomly moving attention, we can come to feel quite lucky, but why do this? What’s the value in cultivating the sense that we’re lucky? Well, it makes you feel good and it helps you think clearly. When you feel fearful and upset many times in a row, these occasions all blur together and you just come away feeling bad, frustrated, even confused. But if you think you’ve been lucky many times in a row, then all these moments seem to connect to each other – you remember them better – you can see their relatedness more clearly – and you come away feeling somewhat amazed that fortune has been on your side throughout. Taking a walk around a city, or just going about your day, you can have either experience, one of continuing mishap, or one of continuing good luck – depending on how you choose to interpret the many landings and repositionings that your attention constantly undergoes. Taking time to appreciate the beneficial landings is a reliable way to feel good.