Humour by Rehana Munir: The age of distraction
“A writer is one who pays attention to the world,” said American philosopher, writer and activist Susan Sontag. In these strange times, hazier than a sauna in a ‘90s American soap where inglorious seductions take place, it’s not just the writers who are suffering from an attention deficit. But what writers do well is to restate a problem, slyly passing on the buck of responsibility like so: perhaps the world is to blame for this current crisis in our collective attention. Ergo, distractions should be taken off the naughty list with immediate effect.
Who sabotaged my satisfaction?
How many times have you, over the past two muddled years, found yourself leaving a task half-done? You open a book, take a picture of the book, post it on Instagram, answer the doorbell, follow up on the Instagram post, make yourself a cup of chai, launch into a twelve-minute WhatsApp discussion on current travel protocol, read two paragraphs, check Instagram again, reply to a work mail, load the washing machine, decide you’ll never leave the house again, almost immediately bolt out of the house to get an inconsequential picture framed, with 16 tabs open in your overburdened yet underutilised brain.
The pandemic has combined with social media dependence in both frightening and amusing ways. For all the seeming attention that we receive from friends, relatives, ghosts from the past, strangers and stalkers, we keep losing precious moments of uninterrupted focus on meaningful tasks. Basically, while we’re busy projecting beauty, success and intelligence onto people who are indifferent, judgmental or envious, we’re sabotaging our own satisfaction from pursuits that feed our bodies, minds, souls—and bank accounts.
The wild horses of the unquiet mind
Case in point: the familiar phenomena of diminishing a beautiful experience by obsessively capturing it on camera. I’ve subjected my fair share of sunsets, desserts, pets, friends and miscellaneous objects connoting urban loneliness to relentless picture-taking. Each time, my attention shifts from what I’m seeing before me to the idea of preserving it for posterity. Everything’s constantly changing, fading, disappearing; but at least my phone gallery will bear witness to history. That’s until I switch phones without transferring data from one to the other—a superbly psychoanalysable trait from my odd repertoire.
Truth is, attention is a capricious bird, now sitting as still as a nervous traveller waiting for tatkal bookings to open on the Indian Railways website, now swaying as dizzily as a drunk uncle around an open bar. My wayward mind wanders to a Hindi teacher from school with a philosophical bent. She often spoke to us about the perils of letting our attention stray; the wild horses of the unquiet mind could only be mastered by effort of will and discipline. Further, she always made it a point to tell us how our impending adulthood promised to be a procession of unsavoury situations, inevitably leading to mental breakdown. No wonder, the very mention of Munshi Premchand makes me shiver to the day.
Somewhere in a zen heaven
A meme being revived in the new year features the four horsemen of procrastination: napping, snacks, social media and minor chores. So, how does one break this frustrating cycle of attempted attention and frequent distraction to reach the desired state of monk-like focus? I’ll apply myself to the question right after I replace the water in the flower vase, self-administer a RAT test, ask everyone I know how they’re feeling today, and finish off the leftover hummus that’s just a few hours away from turning into a very spurious intoxicant.
One should, like my grim Hindi teacher suggested, try and rein in one’s galloping thoughts. Shutting oneself off from distractions like the phone, fridge and bookshelf is a start. Next, one could try and channel some of the focus prescribed at a meditation camp I attended all those years ago in a township where distractions weren’t permitted, meals were frugal and equanimity was everything. “Attention without feeling is merely a report,” wrote nature poet Mary Oliver. Somewhere in a zen heaven, I see myself writing by a lake while listening to an Amir Khusrau qawwali, looking up occasionally at a wisp of cloud and leading errant thoughts back to the page with practised ease.
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From HT Brunch, January 16, 2022
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