THE BLOG
03/03/2014 03:34 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2014

Awareness Bound and Unbound

Joe Baran via Getty Images

"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.

The Fragmentation of Attention

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.

The Commodification of Attention

For most of us in the developed world, the greatest attention trap is consumerism, which involves sophisticated advertising that has become very good at manipulating our awareness. Today the bigger economic challenge is not production but keeping us convinced that the solution to our dukkha "dis-ease" is our next purchase. According to the pioneering advertising executive Leo Burnett, good advertising does more than circulate information: "It penetrates the public mind with desire and belief." That penetration may have been lucrative for his clients, but there are other consequences, as Ivan Illich pointed out: "In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves, the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy." Whether or not one is able to afford the desired product, one's attention is captured.

In other words, attention has become the basic commodity to be exploited. According to Jonathan Rowe, the key economic resource of this new economy is not something they provide, it's something we provide -- "mindshare." But "what if there's only so much mind to share? If you've wondered how people could feel so depleted in such a prosperous economy, how stress could become the trademark affliction of the age, part of the answer might be here."

A turning point in the development of capitalism was the enclosures in early modern Britain, when villagers were forced out of their villages because landlords found it more profitable to raise sheep. Rowe discusses "the ultimate enclosure -- the enclosure of the cognitive commons, the ambient mental atmosphere of daily life," a rapid development now so pervasive that it has become like the air we breathe unnoticed. Time and space have already been reconstructed: holidays into shopping days, Main Street into shopping malls. Sports stadiums used to have advertisements; now renamed stadiums are themselves ads. TV shows used to be sponsored by ads; today product placement makes the whole show (and many movies) an ad. A 2005 issue of the New Yorker did not include any ads because the whole magazine was a promotion for the retail chain Target. According to one study, two-thirds of three-year-olds recognize the golden arches of McDonald's.

Unless we're meditating in a Himalayan cave, we now have to process thousands of commercial messages every day. As Rowe emphasizes, they do not just grab our attention, they exploit it:

"The attention economy mines us much the way the industrial economy mines the earth. It mines us first for incapacities and wants. Our capacity for interaction and reflection must become a need for entertainment. Our capacity to deal with life's bumps and jolts becomes a need for 'grief counseling' or Prozac. The progress of the consumer economy has come to mean the diminution of ourselves."

Consumerism requires and develops a sense of our own impoverishment. By manipulating the gnawing sense of lack that haunts our insecure sense of self, the attention economy insinuates its basic message deep into our awareness: the solution to any discomfort is consumption.

The Control of Attention

Dictatorships control people with violence and the threat of it, to restrain what they do. Modern democracies control people with sophisticated propaganda, by manipulating what they think. We worry about weapons of mass destruction, but perhaps we should be as concerned about weapons of mass deception (and weapons of mass distraction). The disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq would never have been possible without carefully orchestrated attempts to make the public anxious about dangers that did not exist. It was easy to do because 9/11 made us fearful, and fearful people are more susceptible to manipulation.

Traditionally rulers used religious ideologies to justify their power. In pre-modern Europe the Church supported the "divine right" of kings. In Buddhist societies karma was sometimes used to rationalize the ruler's authority and the powerlessness of his oppressed subjects: your present social status is a consequence of your past deeds. In modern secular societies, however, acquiescence must be molded in different ways.

According to Alex Carey, the twentieth century was characterized by three important political developments: the growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of propaganda as a way protect corporate power against democracy. Although corporations are not mentioned in the Constitution -- the founding fathers were wary of them -- corporate power began to expand dramatically towards the end of the nineteenth century, so successfully that today there is little effective distinction between major corporations and the federal government. Both identify wholeheartedly with the same goal of continuous economic growth, regardless of its social or ecological effects. We are repeatedly told that any unfortunate consequences from this growth obsession can be solved with more economic growth.

The liberation of collective attention

Who should decide what happens to our attention? Rowe concludes that we need a new freedom movement, to "battle for the cognitive commons. If we have no choice regarding what fills our attention, then we really have no choice at all." From a Buddhist perspective, we also need an alternative understanding of what our attention is and what practices promote its liberation. What does it really mean for awareness to be here-and-now, de-conditioned from attention traps both individual and collective? Is awareness to be valued as a means to some other end, or should we cherish its liberation as the most valuable goal of all?