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September 20th, 2018
In the past, it was quite difficult to get to know someone. It took a lot more time and was generally a person-to-person interaction that is at the heart of much of what we like to do as a species.
Today, however, there are new entities that can get to know parts of us much much faster, by tracking what we click, what we buy, what we listen to, what we read and what we watch.
It’s commonly said these days that the real currency is attention and companies like facebook and Netflix and Amazon are vying for larger and larger pie slices of our attention. To do so, they have built algorithms that track our interests, locate similar things and plop them right in front of us in order to keep us glued to a screen. The human mind is being hacked faster and more efficiently than ever before. So fast in fact that individuals cease to know themselves as well as the platforms that engage them. This is a scary and nervous fact.
The antidote is not another app.
One antidote is simply to get to know ourselves and our own mind better. This is impossible to do while watching the next hit show or scrolling through a news feed that provokes outrage.
Here is an exercise worth trying: Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and try to notice the inhalation and exhalation of the next ten breaths. If you have time now, try it. . .
Unless this sort of concentration has been developed, chances are the count was lost and some other idea, fantasy, worry or ill-remembered thing popped up into consciousness. Most of the time, our minds are chaotic clouds of half-fired activity.
It’s this out-of-control quality that allows sticky mediums like the Instagram feed or reddit to consume huge portions of our attention without our conscious awareness.
But a practice of mindfulness meditation. Even 10 small minutes a day gradually has a tremendous impact on the mind’s ability to cut through the noise and decide if something is worth the attention, and if not, to switch towards something more worthy of our invaluable time.
Think of a chef who sharpens her favorite knife on a stone. Does she casually whip the fine blade across the stone willy-nilly while looking somewhere else and recounting some inane story? No. Her concentration is tight and she takes her time slowly moving the blade across the stone, mindful of the angle, the speed and the track across the stone. Then she flips the blade and with equal attention and determination, plies the blade to the stone. She takes her time to ensure that the blade is sharp and even, because she knows that the blade’s performance later will be equal to her efforts while sharpening. And if she does the work well enough, then the knife will be more accurately attuned to her will, when she wants something chopped or sliced, the knife will split where desired.
So is the case with meditation and the mind. Each inhalation is like moving that knife across the stone, and each exhalation is moving the flipped knife back across the stone. Just as the chef spends time before the real work sharpening her knife, we too can take time each morning to sharpen our mind to ensure that we are less distracted, more focused and more on point with our goals and desires.
This kind of training and sharpening creates a kind of sentinel in the brain. When a facebook notification pops up and we feel that tiny spike of wanting that usually propels us down an unproductive rabbit hole, that sharpened sentinel that we’ve honed through our practice can help us notice our own actions, cut through the noise and make the better decision.
The digital platforms that analyze our preferences and tailor suggestions for us are only going to get better, faster. As they develop, it’ll become easier and easier for our human minds to be ‘hacked’ so that our attention will be constantly directed.
This rapidly growing process poses some very troubling realities when it comes to the notion of ‘freedom’ and before that weed chokes the light out of our decision-making abilities, we would be best served to start sharpening our mental ax and developing a mindful vigilance so that we know when to use it.
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