What are you attending to at this very moment? What—or who—were you attending to before this? Perhaps more importantly, what was the quality of your attention? Were you fully aware and present, or partially distracted and disengaged?
These are the types of contemplative questions I ask students in my Asian religions course. Contemplative pedagogy incorporates stillness, silence, mindfulness, attention, reflection, and self-inquiry into teaching and learning, helping students build their attention, deepen their levels of introspection, and strengthen their sense of connection. Although some instructors incorporate contemplative practices directly from religious traditions, because I teach at a public university, I’ve designed what I call “analogous activities,” which are similar to religious practices, but secular and relatively simple to perform.
My students practice social rituals when they’re learning about Confucianism; stillness and sitting in nature when learning about the Daoist practices of “fasting the mind;” social media fasts when learning about Hindu ascetic practices; singing when learning about Sikh devotional hymns; mindfulness when learning about Buddhist meditation; and nonviolent communication when learning about Jainism. They intentionally engage in the analogous activity for several days, journal about how it affects them and their relationships with others, and write a reflection that brings their experience into dialogue with their understanding of the respective tradition. My research has shown that engaging in such activities develops my students’ moral attention because it disrupts their fixation on themselves and heightens their awareness of others. Most students observe that their relationships with other people improve, and they identify digital technologies as impediments to their interpersonal interactions.
Continuous Partial Attention
Technology allows for constant access to a variety of media through a range of digital devices, and this impacts the way some students manage their attention. They tend toward “continuous partial attention,” a phrase coined by tech writer Linda Stone that describes the process of paying simultaneous attention to numerous sources of information, but on a superficial level. Continuous partial attention is motivated by the desire to continuously connect and be connected in an effort not to miss anything. As Stone says, “It is an always-on, anywhere, anytime, anyplace behavior, and it involves an artificial sense of constant crisis.” Continuous partial attention can also impede my students’ ability to perform tasks requiring undivided attention.
This continuous partial attention—and resulting tendency to be less attentive to the people surrounding them—poses considerable obstacles to my students’ capacity for moral attention, or perceiving people, environments, and situations in all of their complexity and particularity. French political thinker, social activist, and essayist Simone Weil called moral attention “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” In Waiting for God, a collection of essays published after her death, Weil writes, “Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object…Above all our thought should be empty, waiting, not seeking anything, but ready to receive in its naked truth the object that is to penetrate it.” Moral attention involves suspending our thoughts so that we can actively receive something or someone else. As philosopher Martha Nussbaum has emphasized, moral attention requires that one be “finely aware and richly responsible.” She writes, “We live amid bewildering complexities. Obtuseness and refusal of vision are our besetting vices. Responsible lucidity can be wrestled from that darkness only by painful vigilant effort, the intense scrutiny of particulars. Our highest and hardest task is to make ourselves people ‘on whom nothing is lost.’” In other words, moral attention requires considerable effort and concentration on the particularity of people and situations—something that continuous partial attention undermines. By disrupting their habitual engagement with digital devices, analogous activities allow my students to develop their capacity for moral attention.
The social ritual activity instructs students to intentionally perform five social rituals for one week, including opening doors for others or letting them into traffic, saying please and thank you, and looking people in the eyes when they talk to them. Although most social rituals come naturally to students, they have admitted having difficulty and experiencing discomfort when maintaining eye contact with other people because it requires concentration and focus. Reflecting on their experience, however, they report feeling a greater sense of transparency and presence—a feeling that became particularly palpable for students who committed to not using their phones while conversing with others. Several students have admitted that although it was initially difficult to not look at their phones, it got easier. When they provided their full attention to the other person by making eye contact, they were showing respect through their nonverbal behavior. One student identified it as a “generational concern.” “Whether users are scrolling through social media or texting friends, cell phones have a tendency to be an intruder during face-to-face conversation.” Burying her cell phone in her bag, she noted how she found herself engaging in deeper conversation, but also admitted feeling annoyed when the other person checked her phone. She was not alone—dozens of students admitted feeling disappointed when others failed to similarly observe such social rituals.
Students often discuss the adverse impact that digital devices have on their interactions with other people. After performing the “social rituals” one student wrote, “It is easy to assume that by communicating through my phone, I am participating in a community. However, the more direct relationship to the world is to the people physically around me, and I owe them the respect that such friendship deserves.” Some students realized that they previously prioritized those in their online networks rather than people around them. Some went further and identified their phones as obstacles for interpersonal relationships. As one student wrote, “I wasn’t as zoned in on my phone and actually interacted with others more than I normally would.” Another student remarked, “By giving my full attention, I realized that this strengthens relationships and can create greater harmony.” In this way, they brought their experience into dialogue with Confucian notions of humaneness and harmony, and recognized the ethical impact of attention. They identified digital distraction as endemic to those of their generation. “I noticed that most people hold doors open for people or say please and thank you, but not many people really pay attention to their friends when they have a conversation,” another student wrote. “They are usually multitasking by talking to friends and checking social media on their phones.”
The stillness activity challenges my students’ tendency to be busy, productive, and constantly connected. As students learn about Daoist traditions, they engage in non-purposeful action—sitting quietly in nature or otherwise being still—for at least thirty minutes a day for a week. They reflect on their experience, including the impact it had on themselves and the responses they noted from others. Students choose various ways to engage in stillness such as sitting at the beach watching the ocean, sitting on the balconies of their apartment, swinging in a hammock, or sitting and drinking tea. Almost all of the students say they thought it would be an easy practice, but instead they find it incredibly challenging.
For many students, the experience of solitude is novel: “It was like thirty minutes of just being with myself uninterrupted by anything. I’m alone a lot, but there’s always some sort of device distracting me,” one student wrote after trying this practice. Many noticed that their habitual instinct was to reach for their phone when they were alone. As one student wrote, “I sat there for a solid minute before I automatically reached for my phone. . . I found one of the hardest struggles was to be disconnected from the world of the internet. After this, I have become conscious of the amount of time that I am constantly connected to my phone and to the latest buzzes constantly changing my thinking and what I am doing.” They acknowledge their tendency to disrupt what they are doing in order to check text messages and notifications on their phone, and how their minds resisted not doing anything. As one student remarked, “As millennials, we need to be constantly stimulated by the next entertaining thing—silence and ‘doing nothing’ are boring. . . Doing nothing has proven to do a lot more than worrying and stressing about the minuscule and trivial parts of life.”
Although they struggle on the first day, most students eventually appreciate the value of stillness and how it gives them a broader perspective on their lives. One student wrote, “My mind was in complete control, and it had my full, undivided attention, which is a very unique experience.” Instead of being partially aware, the student appreciated how stillness allowed for complete and undivided attention.
Social Media Fasting
Students become especially aware of the distractions of digital devices when they engage in a social media fast, during which they avoid logging into social media or browsing the internet. Often students resort to deleting social media apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook from their phones, and even after deleting them they still find themselves reaching for their phones to look for updates. They describe feeling disconnected from their peers because they can’t “check in” to restaurants through Facebook or upload pictures of their meals to Instagram, and they struggle with constant cravings to be informed of what others are doing. Recalling the overwhelming and over-stimulating effects of continuous partial attention, students describe feeling anxious when withdrawing from social media. They remark how novel it is to make “actual jokes and laugh at things that people are saying in front of me” as opposed to scrolling through funny videos on Facebook. They describe the exercise as a process of de- and re-habituation.
Many students also find it novel that they can decide whether or not to engage with social media. When they reflect on their experience, they often bring it into dialogue with Hindu ascetic ideals of discipline, self-control, and taming the ego. They describe the social media fast as an opportunity to gain back the control that social media had over them.
Many students admit to an “obsessive relationship with social media” and struggling with various types of discomfort and anxiety during the social media fast, especially the “fear of missing out,” known as FOMO, which captures the “artificial sense of constant crisis” that Stone associates with excessive continuous partial attention. Downtime is usually spent checking the latest Instagram pictures, Facebook posts, or Twitter updates, and the social media fast heightens students’ awareness of a dependency on their digital devices. As one student remarked, “I found it especially hard when waiting for class to start because I wasn’t sure what to do and I just felt very awkward and uncomfortable. It amazed me how much [I], as well as recent generations, rely on technology. [We] are constantly glued to our phones and computers instead of actually interacting with people.”
Another student, who described initially experiencing great FOMO after a social media fast, wrote, “By not being nearly as tied down by my smartphone or laptop all day, I was able to experience reality in entirely different ways, whether it was asking friends in face-to-face communication what social events were going on later that day or using words instead of texts to communicate with people.” The student disciplined his desires, refocused his attention to people around him, and discovered a new way of engaging with the world.
It’s clear that the analogous activities encourage the development of moral attention, allowing students to suspend thought and forget themselves, to actively receive others, to care for the particulars of others, and to increase their sensory concentration, all of which constitute crucial elements of moral attention. One student wrote after a social ritual activity, “During the course of this exercise, I was more aware of my surroundings. I was able to be mindful of my actions and how they are perceived by others.” Many students have found that the stillness activity heightened their sense of hearing, which shifted their focus away from themselves and their own thoughts. One student described how she became keenly aware of birds chirping, the wind blowing, and people laughing, and wrote, “This was a little hard for me, only because when you yourself are so quiet, the noises that surround you become extremely loud and noticeable.” Another student wrote, “One can begin to see the world for what it is, rather than overanalyzing and worrying about everything.”
Another wrote, “I was able to pay attention to little things within the environment like ants crawling on the bench and squirrels running up trees.” Another student wrote, “Watching the raindrops striking the pavement and the wind shaking the trees, I thought of myself as a squirrel or some other animal jumping between the rapidly swaying branches and quickly falling raindrops. I saw other people pass from time to time, and I thought about what lives they may have been living, and what it would be like to be them.”
Paying attention to the details—the wind, rain, and squirrels—led the student to consider the perspectives and experiences of others. This was echoed in yet another student who wrote, “This practice has made me realize that there are different ways of seeing and reacting to things. It really emphasized, to me, that there are different ways of thinking; intellectual and rational thinking is not always right or the best.” When students allowed their minds to wander more freely, they discovered greater care and concern for others.
In all these ways, the so-called analogous activities prompt students to suspend thought, become receptive, and focus their attention on others. They challenge conventional thinking and, perhaps more importantly, conventional habits tied to digital devices that can impinge on moral attention.
From a Buddhist perspective, such activities are important because they reveal the true nature of reality. They lay bare the three characteristics of existence: no-self, suffering, and impermanence. When we suspend thoughts that ordinarily lead us to fixate on ourselves, and instead become receptive and attuned to others and our surroundings, we become more sensitive to universal experiences of suffering and change. As Weil writes, “The capacity to give one’s attention to a sufferer is a very rare and difficult thing. . . It is enough, but it is indispensable, to know how to look at him in a certain way. This way of looking is first of all attentive. The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.”
This article was made possible in part with support from Sacred Writes, a Henry Luce Foundation-funded project hosted by Northeastern University that promotes public scholarship on religion.