A little while back I was listening to a radio interview with the author, Johann Hari, talking about his book, Stolen Focus, and I found myself drawn to much of what he was saying. So with my interest raised, I purchased a copy of his book, and settled down to read it.
Firstly, let me say that if you are a seeker of, and have an interest in, all things esoteric and spiritual, then this book may not be number one on your list of mandatory reading. But, if like me, your spiritual interest extends to keeping yourself informed on what is happening in the world around you, and especially on the impact this may have on your own personal life, then you will find many valuable insights to ponder in this book.
In short, the subject of this book is what the author identifies as the gradual, but definable and measurable loss of our ability to focus our attention. He does this by exploring the impact that certain aspects of our life environments are having on our mental ability to concentrate our thoughts. A brave topic indeed, but much credit to the author, as he does avoid lengthy personal opinions, and to support his conclusions, quotes many insights from authorities in related fields.
In coming to his conclusions, he touches upon subjects such as the increase in the ‘speed of life’, and how often we are forced to switch our attention from one subject to another, and the impact this is having on our ability to constructively ‘filter’ information. He spends quite a bit of time discussing the rise of technology (in particular, mobile phones and computer software) and how their programming is designed to capture our attention, and their functionality (algorithms) designed to ‘feed’ our interest.
The author then connects these associated increases in stress levels to their overarching impact on the general well-being of so many people, looking at its contribution to the rise of physical and mental exhaustion. He then talks about the deteriorating quality of our foods, diets, and subsequent health, once again connecting these to the impact this is having on our mental acuity.
A chapter on the rise of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) gives some alarming statistics on just how many children are being diagnosed with this ‘illness’ today, and are being prescribed medications that in effect do nothing to cure, but simply ‘calm’ the behaviour, a side effect of which is to also decrease the ability to focus. Lastly, he talks about the confinement of our children, the rise and exacerbation of unfounded fears that have driven parents to deny their children time to ‘play’ outdoors and with others, which only increases the time they spend ‘logged on’. The author concludes that all of these factors have the accumulated effect of ‘stealing our ability to focus’.
The book is full of alarming (at least to me) statistics and comments from well qualified researchers and experts to support the authors conclusions, and he does this I think, convincingly and in an easy-to-read style. At the very least, this book should make us examine our own lives and how much our own personal ability to focus has been affected by these issues.
Now it is not our intention to add yet another ‘personal endorsement’ of this book, as well deserved as that may be, but rather to approach the conclusions it reaches from a deeper perspective. After all, why should we even be concerned that this gradual loss of our ability to focus is worth our attention (no pun intended). The world has many issues to deal with at present, which are much more alarming, immediate, and necessary: violence, illness, poverty, pollution! So why should an apparently innocuous issue such as the loss of focus concern us to any degree?
Well, let us approach this question by firstly understanding that man is a creature of immense inner depth and potential. If we explore that depth within ourselves through our imagination, inspiration, intuition or conscience for instance, we see that our minds and our emotions are but those parts of us that inhabit the surface. We may not be able to easily find that often vague ‘connection’ to our deeper selves, but we know their intimate reality through those voices that speak from the hidden recesses of our hopes and longing.
If we examine these ‘inner voices’ we can identify a common ‘language’ that we all experience and understand; one that speaks to us of possibilities, of potential fulfillments, of attaining heights that can raise us to new levels of inner growth. If only …. then we could reach perfection; if only … then we could have absolute power and control; if only … then we could do away with, and overcome all resistance; if only … then we could, in essence, become omniscient and immortal, and enjoy eternal peace and harmony! If only …!
But these ‘voices’, these urges, seem to speak most loudly in the face of what we experience as obstacles, barriers, resistances – limits that threaten our hopes. Through our creativity, our inner being is drawn to bringing to life these aspirations and imaginations that are captivated by ideals that wish to overcome and remove these perceived limitations. Why are we drawn to want to fly like a bird for instance, or to communicate with each other without the tyranny of distance; to possess complete knowledge and wisdom; to control the natural laws that define our world, or to experience an absolute unity that does not involve the tensions of disharmony or resistance.
In response to these hopes of becoming a more ‘complete’ and ‘perfect’ human being, we have for instance, emulated the freedom of flight by building all manner of aeroplanes, hang gliders, hot-air balloons, and all sort of apparatus to make us air-borne. We desperately long for absolute freedom; subconsciously we feel it is something we can achieve, and thus we have turned our creativity to ‘freeing’ our bodies. We have been caught by the intoxication of what the freedom of flight offers us; freedom from the restrictions and confines of gravity; we have applied our imagination, creativity and will, and we have made ourselves fly.
Driven by a deep inner urge to possess an absolute knowledge and wisdom, we have structured our societies to highly value the ‘educated’. But to overcome our human frailty when it comes to memory and cognitive function, we have created a world-wide internet. Easily accessible to all, open for all to contribute to, and built to hold and access all of our accumulated data, information, and knowledge, it is our outward expression of an inner desire for absolute wisdom.
With our invention of the mobile phone, is it because we have reacted to that inner desire to communicate with each other without the need for physical presence? We inherently respond to the belief that telepathy, communicating through thoughts alone, is not only possible, but intrinsic as an aspect of ‘perfection’; so we have removed the limitations and boundaries of face-to-face communication, and created a technology that gives us the ability to communicate instantly, anywhere, anytime.
Because our foods are so important to life (we must eat), they have become subject to our inner desires to ‘control’. After all – how dare nature have an agenda that does not fall in line with our own expectations! We feed our crops artificial fertilizers, we spray them to protect them from pests; we treat them with chemicals so that they ripen when we want them to; we add more chemicals so that they do not spoil too quickly, we add other chemicals to ‘standardise’ their taste; food colouring to maintain ‘appearance’; preservatives to add shelf life, and packaging for presentation – all in the pursuit of that inner need to overcome the limits of nature, and place ourselves in control of the process.
And of course, there is our ongoing health. Driven by our need to deny illness and death as a ‘natural’ consequence of life, our medical profession does everything it can to prolong life. ‘Perfection’ should not include ‘illness or death’, but be absolute, complete and whole, so a huge amount of humanity’s energy is focused on maintaining and achieving the prolongation of a healthy, balanced body. And vast strides have been achieved in this regard, and for the modern man, he has the benefits of living longer than any of his predecessors. Yet, for all our striving, illnesses evade our attempts at ‘cures’, and death continues to knock on our back door.
In all this achievement, all this energy and time spent on attaining ‘perfection’, our world, our life always exacts a price! And that cost is the price of ignorance. This is what the author of this book has brought to our awareness – the cost of many of our endeavours – a cost that reflects our own limitations and imperfections.
For all its value, we have an internet that is abused through deception, falsehood, and personal advantage, often resulting in emotional cruelty and harm through criminality. For all the knowledge the internet gives us access to, still we have failed to exclude our fundamental ignorance or our propensity for deception, lies, and perverted fantasies. Often driven by a moral erosion, this ethical vacuum moves us away from ‘perfection’, and the reality is that the internet has not brought us closer to wisdom!
We have become ‘addicted’ to our mobile phones, having allowed ourselves to enter into the belief that without them we will somehow be totally isolated, excluded from others. Constant use, even abuse, driven by a fear of ‘missing out’, has replaced the value of personal face-to-face contact. We long for perfect communication and the unity it brings with others, but our own inner fears, and the human propensity to abuse the positive for personal gain, has turned the mobile phone from an asset into an addictive poison. And yes, it is affecting our consciousness. It has given us instant communication, but taken away the quality of our communications, and has not brought us any closer together.
We have a food industry that cares little about health, and a health industry that ignores the impact of our food. We have a chemical industry that believes that all of life is nothing more than a chemical reaction, the excesses of which have resulted in the pollution of our environment and our bodies to a degree that has never occurred before in human history. Through its fundamental ignorance and desperation, the medical profession has partnered with the chemical industry, and approached human illness as nothing more than an imbalance that can be mechanically and chemically corrected. But none of this has brought us lasting health, balance, harmony, or taken away the reality of illness and death!
We want ‘perfection’, we strive for ‘perfection’, we refuse to believe that our limitations are not insurmountable, yet we are continually driven to confront these limits in the face of reality. And some of this reality is identified for us in this book. It is in essence, one man’s attempt to say to us: ‘Hey, wake up, not everything is as it appears or as we would wish. There are dangers here that we should be aware of!’
We must also accept that these aspirations, these inventions and creations we call ‘progress’, are also aimed at mastering the physical world. And although we chase the ideals of achieving absolute harmony, peace, love, etc, our current state of being that ‘inhabits’ these inventions, brings our limits to their functionality – planes fall out of the sky; mobile phones break down; the internet is abused at all levels; our food is becoming so adulterated that it has become a danger to health; our health industry is losing the battle against illness and death; and fear of the future is replacing hope for the future.
Yet the idea of attaining perfection, the longing to clothe oneself and immerse oneself in a life of ‘perfection’ is as strong as ever. And being shown the limitations of our endeavours, as the author has touched upon in this book, only increases this desire. It is not just the loss of focus that is the issue here, it is the consequence of ignorance, which, in the face of the harm and despair it creates, also drives us to seek hope.
Johann Hari has touched upon the fundamental challenges we face as human beings. We are not perfect, nor is the world around us perfect, and no matter how noble or pure our aspirations and endeavours are to bring this perfection into reality, human history tells us it has never, and will never, succeed. So inadvertently, he has confronted us with a choice – we can ignore these ‘symptoms’ for the most part and continue to seek perfection through our creativity and imagination by ‘fixing’ the world, or, we can accept these limitations as a reality of life, and seek perfection, not outside of ourselves, but within.
Did not Ghandi say: ‘If you want to change the world, change yourself’. Can we not therefore imply: ‘If you want to perfect the world, firstly perfect yourself’. If this book has contributed to increasing our awareness of the limitations of our world, then has it not also contributed to increasing our desire to seek and find this ‘perfect world’, and thus helped to change our focus? Yes, this book is about a loss of focus, a diminishment of consciousness, but conversely, has it not also given us a deeper understanding of what we are doing to ourselves? Has it not also focused our awareness on the limits of who and what we are? A worthwhile read indeed!