Your Attention, Please

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I found ourselves wandering around a real bookstore, the kind with actual books in it, reminding ourselves what print on paper actually looks like. It’s not that neither of us no longer read paper books, we still do. (The local library is about 50 steps from our front door.) But we’re almost at the point now where we have more books stored on our Kindles than we do in the two floor to ceiling bookshelves we have in our living room. Which is a good and not so good thing all at once, like most things electronic these days.

laughing girlsAnyway, we turned a corner and found ourselves in the philosophy/meditation/self help section of the store. A full row of shelves on either side of us, probably close to a thousand books on how to navigate the world and maintain some sense of sanity in the process. And after about 30 seconds of just walking and scanning some titles, I turned to my wife and said, “It’s incredible how many books and words have been written that probably can be summed up in three words: ‘Be here now.'”

That is the secret to life, in case you haven’t noticed. Be here now. Because everything else is just vaporware. There is no past. There is no future. There is only this moment, and how we choose to act in this moment is central to the quality of our lives.

Obviously, this is not easy. We humans have been struggling with this “be here now” stuff for thousands of years. We spend a lot of our waking hours reliving the past or fearing the future instead of just being fully present in the current moment. (Ok, so that’s my struggle, at least.) We waste a lot of our mental energy on things that are outside of our control, or creating false narratives that we have no real basis for believing.

The modern world accentuates this. FOMO by its very nature means that we want to be somewhere other than where we are, experiencing something that we’re not currently experiencing. And now that we know what everyone else is experiencing…

But, is FOMO the new normal? Is attention becoming a lost skill? And if so, how do we help ourselves and our students maintain the skill to “be here now?”

Those are some of the questions we’re going to be kicking around this month in our Modern Learners Community and in our upcoming podcasts as we turn our attention to the theme of attention.

Some starting points for thinking about this. First, I believe every child pretty much lives in the moment during the first years of their lives. I see this every day with a houseful of kids that live across the street. They play with ferocity, and they are totally immersed in what’s in front of them. So, I don’t think there’s any doubt that we come into the world with the ability to stay in the moment. As always, the question we need to unpack are what are the conditions that surround the skill, that nurture and develop it? And from a schooling standpoint, what are the conditions that we create that may work against it?

Recently, we’ve seen lots of schools introduce the practice of mindfulness in varying ways. A few years ago when I was getting ready to speak to an gymnasium full of high-energy middle school students outside of Las Vegas, a gong suddenly sounded over the loudspeaker and within just a few seconds, the 400 or so kids sitting in front of me fell into silence. And they stayed in stillness for a couple of minutes before the gong sounded again and they picked up their conversations. It was actually kind of shocking, in a good way.

Yet, I’m not at all convinced that practicing mindfulness is the answer. Gary Stager sent me this link a few weeks ago to an interview with the author of a new book titled McMindfulness, which, as that word suggests, is a criticism of the whole mindfulness movement. This compelling quote ought to give you the gist of the critique:

Nothing has been overturned or transformed as the result of mindfulness. And nothing will be. Mindfulness is complicit with the smooth functioning of capitalism and its institutions, and that is because mindfulness is extremely conservative. How else can we explain why it has been so warmly received by governments, corporations, and educational institutions? Mindfulness tells us the problem is our minds rather than with these institutions and how they function. So, of course, they love it.

In other words, instead of putting our attention towards helping kids find stillness, maybe we should be putting it toward ameliorating all of the ways in which the institution of school makes it hard to “be here now.” I mean, when your whole day is driven by the clock, or when you’re forced to “learn” things that are of no real interest to you, it becomes really difficult to stay in the moment, right? To “be here now” is to be enveloped by flow, to be engaged in the moment in a deep level. We might spend more time interrogating how the systems work against that rather than trying to “fix” the way kids deal with it.

Granted, these questions and challenges have roots in institutions and narratives that are much larger than what happens in schools. But if we’re the ones who are going to help kids stay sane in a world where distractions and uncertainty only seem to be growing, then maybe we should start with how we might be contributing to the problem.

Would love to hear your comments or questions about attention below.

Oh, and if you’d like to join us on our inquiry into reclaiming our attention, download the inquiry guide and join us in


6 thoughts on “Your Attention, Please”

  1. Ok…So the words, “Be Here Now” have hung in my classroom for over 15 years. Which is just about as long as I’ve been using mindfulness in my classroom. So I have a love hate relationship with this post from Will.

    1) Hate: Sure, the mindfulness backlash is easy. The system itself is nasty. Why do we laud those who engage in “self-care” when what we really should be doing is dismantling a system that dehumanizes its constituents. This criticism has been levelled against all manners of “self-care”, and it’s justified.

    In the end, for me, this is a “Yes, and” problem. Sure, the system is broken in many ways, but it doesn’t exclude the inclusion of mindful practices.

    2) Love: But let’s be serious here, there’s plenty of research that backs up the positive effects of mindfulness. Done right, Mindfulness isn’t about self-care, it’s about, as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it, “being present, in this moment, in a non-judgemental way. And the neuroscience on this is pretty clear. Being able to monitor and ameliorate the negative influences of reactive vs mindful responses to external stimuli is clearly an evolutionary advantage.

    “Be Here Now” is the phrase associated with Baba Ram Dass, and sure ,you can claim as many 60’s psychedelia allusions there as you want, but the impacts persist.

    So I hear the complaints coming from the resource Gary Stager shared. But those arguments are specific to those who employ mindfulness as a type of palliative, a way to lessen the negative impacts of the system without dealing with the system itself. But as I said, that argument is not unique to mindfulness. they can be levelled at numerous attempts at self-care that white-wash the system that actually causes the harms.

    1. Sara Silber

      Well stated. I wonder when the last time Will spent an extended amount of time in a classroom?

      1. Will Richardson

        After 22 years in the classroom, I left to do full time speaking and writing 12 years ago.

      2. I’m not sure why you’re asking that, Sara. I have no beef with Will or the post. I well recognize the issues he’s bringing up, I just want to make sure we’re being fair to the topic. And I think we are.

  2. Charles Scott

    Will, thanks for a great posting! As a scholar who works in the area of contemplative inquiry in education, may I recommend you check out the Association for Contemplative Mind in Society and the related Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education? Although the latter is primarily concerned with contemplative practices in higher education, much of the work of colleagues in the field includes K-12 education, as well.

    For Garreth: I’d suggest the concern is not with the (wisely-informed) application of mindfulness, per se, but with how, in a materialistic, instrumentalizing, and even Neo-liberal culture, the use of mindfulness has been instrumentalized and co-opted–hence “McMindfulness” as outlined in the work of Ronald Purser and David Loy, not to mention the work of another colleague, David Forbes, in his book “Mindfulness and its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation.”

    I might also mention the work of Oren Ergas on attention and mindfulness; you can find his work through Google Scholar.

  3. Charles,
    Thanks for those links and references. I think we’re on the same page here. The appropriation and commodification of mindfulness = bad news for meaningful mindfulness and good news for those who can use it as a pop-culture, “fast food” version of a bandaid to hide the bleeding caused by economic disparities and systemic pressures to do more with less.

    I’m interested in the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education. A (sometimes) practicing Quaker and liberal arts grad with numerous credits in philosophy and religion, my students tell me we do more deep thinking and learning in my classroom than in most others. I am contemplative by nature. I’ll dive deeper into the Association’s bibliography. Thank you for that link as I was unaware of the association itself.

    Thanks again.

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