Skip to content

Attention Metaphors

Attention is intimately connected with life itself. It's not just valuable because it's useful. And the way we talk about it matters.

Menka Sanghvi
Menka Sanghvi
5 min read
Attention Metaphors
Just Looking Instagram. Photo by Anna Karaulova

It's Menka here with another installment of Just Looking, exploring ways to slow down and notice more of this rabbit hole of life.

I'm assuming I've lost most of you to that rabbit hole link. But if you're still here I've got some exciting news. My podcast is launching next week! It's with Mind Over Tech, and it explores our relationship with technology, and how we can be mindful in it (Autocorrect is trying to change that to "mindful of it" but no, I definitely want to say "in it"). Available and free to subscribe to on all good podcast apps. It's called Digital Habit Lab and you can listen to the trailer for it here...

About "paying" attention

We've all heard the economic metaphors for attention. We know that our attention is constantly being sold and bought on the market to the highest bidders online. And in some cases, this framing has shifted how we value our attention, and how we direct it. Which of course is great. But there's something that's been bugging me about the notion of "paying" attention as though it is a resource, a currency, a scarce commodity only to be sold at the right price.

I've been wondering if this framing might be a legacy issue of the English language, and in some ways it is ...

Source: Juliana Castro

The action verbs for attention in other languages are a little less transactional. Does it feel different to "lend" or "gift" attention? I think it does, but these metaphors still treat attention as a resource, similar to money. But money is an addition to our lives, layered on top, in a facilitation role. It is possible to exist without money. We can save it, or spend it. We can lose it, and get it back again. There is a very clear distinction between "me" and my money.

Attention is far more intimately connected with life itself. We can't live without it - we're always attending to something. And it's spent in every moment. It can't be saved up in a box, for emergencies. In many contemplative traditions, the ray of attention is said to emanate from deep within. It is often described as a defining characteristic of the soul. In some ways, my attention is "me".

A few years ago, fellow mindfulness and tech researcher and writer Dan Nixon, wrote a fantastic piece in Aeon suggesting we consider attention as an experience - a direct, felt engagement with the world. If not, he warns:

"At one extreme, we can imagine a scenario in which we gradually lose touch with attention-as-experience altogether. Attention becomes solely a thing to utilise, a means of getting things done, something from which value can be extracted."

All this is to say, that attention is not valuable just because it's useful. Of course, it is incredibly useful. It connects us with the world, it enables us to make choices, to create things, to care and love, and be loved. But perhaps, it's useful in the same way that being alive is "useful".

Looking Exercise

Notice your attention

I know it's a bit meta (and that this phrase now has another, less philosophical meaning!), but... next time you see something that arrests your attention, pause to consider your attention. What is it that's been arrested?

It's impossible to make a photograph of one's own attention. Some artists have tried, however, and succeeded in at least nudging us in that direction. Uta Barth, the German photographer, has said about her work: "Everything is pointing to one's own activity of looking." She invites us to experience ourselves, as an observer, by removing what she describes as "subject matter". She often displays these hazy photographs in huge sizes, in diptychs or triptychs, overwhelming viewers with an acute awareness of their own attention.

Field #20, Uta Barth, 1997
Field #23, Uta Barth, 1998
Field #16, Uta Barth, 1996

If you give this a go, I'd love to see - just reply to this email with the image. Or share it with the wider community on Instagram using #wearejustlooking.

What If You Had 100 Posts Only? [Write]‌‌
Minus is a new social network designed to get you to s-l-o-w right down. Each person has a total allocation of 100 posts only over their entire lifetime. How would you decide what's worth posting?

Every Act a Ceremony [Read]‌‌
Why are ceremonial practices so important in all cultures, often intact for thousands of years? Charles Eisenstein explores the place and power of taking certain rituals and elevating them, making them sacred.

Double attention [Read]
‌‌In relationships, perhaps it is important to have a third thing to look at together, to wonder about, and enjoy. According to the great poet Donald Hall: "Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention."

Small Acts of Kindness [Read]‌‌
A lovely poem: ‌‌"...sometimes, when you spill lemons‌‌ from your grocery bag, someone else will help you‌‌ pick them up."

Portrait of Humanity [See]‌‌
A photography competition celebrating life's humbler moments. Currently open for entry (until Dec 2, 2021). Here is one of the winning images from last year, that speaks to that "double attention" idea above.

By Alex Zeverijin. "I was visiting a friend when I noticed these two men on the ferry. They were gazing out of the window together, watching the calm waters, completely lost in thought."

Thanks for your attention, and for providing me an excellent excuse to sit, reflect and write on a dark, rainy evening here in London. Speaking of dark skies - I'm excited about the upcoming lunar eclipse on 18-19th Nov!

Yours in curiosity,‌‌

Venus. Photo by Jude

Menka Sanghvi Twitter

I'm a researcher, writer, and designer working on the theme of mindful curiosity. Just Looking is a project I started to help myself and others slow down and experience more wonder in the everyday.

Related Posts

Members Public

The Blueness of Blue

We have so many allies in this world, including just the colour blue in the sky. It is amazing how simply noticing colours and paying attention can help bring you back to the moment and feel less alone in the world.

Blue sky, grey shadow on grey bricks.
Members Public

In Defence of Wonder

Keeping one's heart open is risky business. It means anything can stop by for a visit. Sadness, sorrow, grief and, yes, joy too. We can either keep ourselves open to everything, or nothing at all.

Photo taken by Menka behind her home. Fracturing water that looks like glass.
Members Public

Our Bodies Conduct Electricity

Wetware. Organic apparatus. Bio-processor. I have serious hesitations about each of these terms for the human body. I'm wary of conflating machines with humans. But there is at least one thing we have in common with machines: we rely on electricity to function.

Vintage-looking photo of two young boys in a bath tub covered in bubbles, no smiles, having serious fun.