Let the mind come forth without fixing it anywhere. (Diamond Sutra)
The Platform Sutra makes the same point: “When our mind works freely without any hindrance, and is at liberty to ‘come’ or to ‘go,’ we attain liberation.” Such a mind “is everywhere present, yet it ‘sticks’ nowhere.” Our awareness becomes stuck when we identify with particular forms, due to ignorance of the essential non-dwelling nature of our consciousness.
These are familiar Buddhist teachings, yet an important implication is not usually noticed: the danger of collective attention-traps. We tend to have similar problems because we are subjected to similar conditioning. What do contemporary societies do to encourage the constriction or liberation of awareness?
These questions are important because today our awareness is affected in at least three ways that did not afflict previous Buddhist cultures: fragmented by new information and communication technologies, commodified by advertising, consumerism and manipulated with sophisticated propaganda techniques.
Media coverage suggests that one of our major concerns about attention is the lack thereof. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder has become a serious medical issue. Last November the Center for Disease Control said that rates among children have increased 42 percent over the last decade; more than 20 percent of 11-year-old boys have been diagnosed with ADHD at some point in their lives. Diagnoses among adults are also rising quickly.
It’s not clear why this is happening, but one likely factor is new technologies.
Buddhist practice evokes images of meditation with minimal distractions. The IT revolution — personal computers, the internet, email, cellphones, mp3 players, etc. — encourages an unremitting connectivity that pulls us in the opposite direction. As we become attentive to so many more possibilities always available, is less attention available for the people and things most important to us?
TV channel and internet-surfing, video-games, Amazon one-click orders of books. Our old foraging habits were based on info-scarcity, but suddenly, like Mickey Mouse the sorcerer’s apprentice, we find ourselves trying to survive an info-glut, and the scarcest resources have become attention and control over our own time. Thomas Eriksen has formalized this relationship into a general law of the information revolution: “When an ever increasing amount of information has to be squeezed into the relatively constant amount of time each of us has at our disposal, the span of attention necessarily decreases.”
In place of the usual Buddhist warnings about clinging and attachment, many of us now have the opposite problem: an inability to concentrate on one thing. Yet an attention that jumps from this to that, unable to focus itself, is no improvement over an awareness that is stuck on something.
Written by David Loy, originally published as Awareness Bound and Unbound in the Huffington Post March 3, 2014