Returning to Ireland after visiting my parents in the UK I flew out of Stansted Airport and after passing through security I did the ‘IKEA walk’ to get to the departures lounge. This is a relatively recent addition to the airport and it simply means that to get from security to the departures lounge you have to walk a winding route past every shop in the airport.
Stansted is a busy airport and there is a constant flow of passengers making their way through the retail area. Most of the time you are carried along with the flow, but there is a constant need to adjust your pace and direction to avoid dawdling or distracted passengers. Sometimes someone has frustratingly come to a complete stop to check the contents of their suitcase, and there’s always the odd person swimming against the current like a salmon battling it’s way upstream.
On either sides of the path are a dazzling array of duty-free shops selling alcohol, tobacco, designer clothes, books, gifts and gadgets. They are brightly lit and decked out in the style, colours, and advertising images of their brands. Along the sides of the path are smartly dressed sales assistants holding out perfume sticks or small trays of tempting samples, like kingfishers watching intently for a bite.
The whole experience felt scripted and artificial, yet somehow I felt it was a metaphor for our human experience.
The River of Time.
The constant flow of passengers in which I was surrounded felt like an example of how humanity is swept along by the great River of Time. We share the illusion that we are standing still in life but this is only because we are all carried along at the same pace in the same current. We can all think of friends and acquaintances who at some time were central to our lives but who are now distant, separated from us by some event in the past, like the rocks and rapids that break up the linear flow of a river.
While we feel we are standing still, we are constantly adjusting our path and pace to make allowance for all the people and events that impact us every day. We don’t appreciate quite how much attention we expend at just keeping our place in the flow.
The Kingfishers of Attention
As a student in 1981 I spent a summer in what was then the communist country of Czechoslovakia and I remember the total absence of advertising and consumerism. We take our environment as a given and it doesn’t occur to us that it could be any other way. While there are few proponents of communism now, we should still recognise that one of the defining features of our society is consumerism and the constant quest to capture our attention through advertising, marketing and selling.
“A wealth of information creates a poverty of attention”
The glossy duty-free stores and the well dressed sales assistants offering free samples are symbolic of the constant sensory barrage on our attention, sometimes passive, sometimes intrusive. Behavioral psychology is deployed in the design of websites, games and social media, to keep us returning to them, building habits that are difficult to break.
Is it any wonder we don’t see the days, weeks, and months slip by as our attention is absorbed by our day to day struggles and the constant distractions seeking to capture our mind.
The Importance of Attention
When we begin to ‘see’ time flowing past us and the constant demands on our attention, we can begin to appreciate the importance of proactively directing our attention.
Mindfulness is the means by which we bring our attention to the here and now. To use the metaphor of the River of Time it is when we put our head above water to see where we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.
Lessons from the River of Time
Time is like the illusion of the sun circling the Earth, we think we are standing still while all the time we are spinning round the great clock face of Time. Unless we find a way of marking our passage, the days, weeks, months and years will pass by unnoticed until one day we will find the waters slowing and widening out towards the end of our journey.
If we wish to pilot our own course down the great River of Time then our greatest resource is our attention. It is only when we appreciate the constant demands on our attention that we can be realistic in our expectations of being more present in our lives.
Despite distraction, it is our choice on where we place our attention. Once we understand this we can begin to allocate it as the valuable resource it really is.
Mindfulness is the act of giving our attention intentionally. The very act of directing our attention proactively brings a quality of awareness that steps beyond our habitual and reactive thinking and doing. We empower ourselves.
We cannot stop the flow of Time, it extends from Eternity to Eternity. But we can begin to chart our course by showing up regularly to mark our position and keep a log of the times and places we visited along the way.