Leveraging Our Attention

January 4th, 2013

The story of professional pickpocket Apollo Robbins, in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker, demonstrates the critical significance of attention in every aspect of life. What we pay attention to iswhat exists for us — including when we discover that we’ve been distracted and missed what was really going on. The story, by Adam Green, reveals a man in many ways puzzled by his own gifts, which is the ability to distract people so thoroughly that they simply don’t see what’s occurring right in front of them.

Being distracted, when so much is actually occurring in the world, is one of the most serious problems of our time. The recent media frenzy over the “fiscal cliff” was a perfect example of this: while Syrians were killing each other in record numbers, while machine guns are being sold in record numbers to crazy people, and while climate change is bearing down on the planet at a record speed, our attention is being held captive by the posturing and obstructiveness of a small faction of fiscal fanatics, who are daily trying to convince us that “the deficit is the biggest problem we have and the only thing that matters.”

In reality, of course, what actually determines whether or not we can, as a society, pay our bills and invest in the future is the health of the overall economy — including the numbers of people employed (and profitably self-employed), the amount of capital being invested in growing the economy, and what that economy is actually producing (including greenhouse gases).

So what can we actually do about this? It’s hard to avoid the huge distraction of the media, and of the advertising that supports it, and of the kabuki theater that much of our politics has descended to. It’s even more difficult, it seems, to avoid being “distracted” by one’s personal circumstances, in the form of working at a job doing things that we would otherwise not be willing to do, or of “looking for work” of this sort, which is usually the only kind that pays — and usually an always diminishing amount. It’s often occurred to me that my entire generation was distracted from its vision of a peaceful, transformational, enlightened revolution by the need to make a living. It’s almost as if maintaining the population in a state of financial scarcity is a deliberate tactic to constrain prosperity, and thereby require the vast majority to enter some form of indentured servitude.

But this can’t really be the case: there’s no “conspiracy” on the part of the 1% to impoverish the 99%. It’s just “the way things are.” The wealthy buy into it along with the rest of us, and push wise or stupid policies depending on whatever social reality they’re living in. If they’re Warren Buffett, they’re arguing for more progressive tax policies mainly for reasons of fairness; if they’re the Koch brothers, they’re funding massive disinformation campaigns designed to confuse, paralyze, and above all distract people from seeing the truth.

As we recall from transformational analysis, people act based on an engagement with the world that is occurring for them. As we noted earlier, what we pay attention to is what exists for us. This “paying attention to” stuff is what determines the difference between an Alan Greenspan and a Paul Krugman — whether or not they actually recognize what’s going on, and can provide relevant solutions to the underlying problems. To be sure, their own fundamental belief systems determine what they see and take in, and it’s hard to alter those. But as we deal with stuff on an everyday basis, it’s usually a question of what “bucket” we put it in that determines what we do about it.

In The Three Laws of Performance (2009),  Zaffron and Logan argue that these decisions and interpretations “arise in language,” and can be altered only by altering the language in which we are framing them. In other words, you can’t convince a Tea Partier that they’re wrong (because in the world that they are experiencing they’re not wrong), but you can potentially shift their focus so that they see the problems they’re preoccupied with in a different way.

Indeed, we can only shift our own beliefs and perspectives about things by “framing” them differently, so that we don’t put them in the wrong bucket, which is potentially an even more serious problem. We spend a lot of time worrying about why other people don’t see things the way we do, and trying to change them, when in reality we may be misperceiving things also, and advocating for the wrong things. It may be disturbing when we start to doubt ourselves; but let’s face it, if we actually saw stuff as it was and could share that point of view with other people, wouldn’t we have already solved most of our problems.

Werner thought he could help by pointing out the difference between “what’s so” and how we have interpreted it. You can make this pretty concrete if you’re willing to acknowledge that there are some “hard realities,” like the ceiling and the floor. But the rest — the global tapestry in institutions and policies and transactions — is entirely made up. And we’re the ones making it up. So we should wake up to how we’re doing it, and make some conscious choices about our own actions.

In short, the solution to the problem that Apollo Robbins poses is to recognize the deceit, the distraction, and to look at what’s actually there. But how do we make this distinction in the first place? Especially when it’s not a deliberate deceit, but is really a sort of confusion? Werner’s answer here is to connect action, or behavior, to what we’re committed to, regardless of how we “feel” about it, or how that little voice in our head keeps complaining about it.

In other words, it’s a matter of making some hard choices, by looking at the commitments that, if we pay attention, are already there, in the very fabric of our being, in the depths of our souls. (Well, I added the last part. Werner doesn’t talk much about souls.) If we want to do something about our communities, for example, we need to take action; it’s not enough to just talk about it. But “taking action” does include talking about it, so how we talk about it matters.

In thinking about how the Landmark Forum works — or indeed any other effective workshop — it’s about focusing the attention of many people on an outcome that is capable of altering each person’s experience irrevocably. We can’t do this by “convincing” people to believe something outlandish, by only by showing them the way to unmask their own self-deceptions, and get in touch with what all humans are truly capable of, unconditional love and appreciation for everything that is and the desire to make a difference, to do something that matters, and discover what matters to them.

In short, we’re unleashing people to do what calls to them, what inspires them, what their hearts tell them is possible. This is something of a radical idea, since sometimes if people are free to do whatever they want, they will do things that are profoundly irresponsible. But this is actually the idea our society is supposed to be founded upon; and at least in a free society we can point out those things that are irresponsible in a way that you can’t in a totalitarian society. Which is why a free society is potentially self-correcting, while a totalitarian one is ultimately self-destructive.

Note the word “potentially,” however. There’s nothing that guarantees that we won’t go over the climate cliff, and unlike the fiscal cliff the climate’s tipping point is not one that’s reversible by an act of congress. So we need to liberate and empower people to take responsible action — action that is consistent with their strengths and beliefs and knowledge but is also guided by the ultimate desire to benefit the whole, and the ultimate need to maintain the integrity of the ecosystem that we’re a part of.

This is a choice, of course. We can debate what’s responsible, e.g., in terms of rebuilding the Shore communities, regenerating the economy, and planning for a greener future. But as long as we arediscussing these things, and continue to be open to new information  and new perspectives, we’re moving in the right direction.

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