Video games utilise what’s called a HUD. A heads-up display. First person shooters in particular rely on these. They tell the player how much health he has, how many rounds he has in his weapon, what weapons he has, how his team members are faring. They tell him about the mission objective, and usually provide some sort of radar or map which helps him navigate.
Imagine you had a HUD right now, and on that HUD one thing was displayed: the distribution of your attention.
Yesterday I was in the car heading north to see some family. I was with my mother. She was driving. I was relaxing in the passenger seat, sometimes gazing out at the passing countryside, sometimes reading, and sometimes talking.
Molly says that when I sit next to her and read, it’s like I’m not even there. Like I’m in another world. And I am. I get lost. I was once sat outside on a bench reading after work. A colleague came over and offered up some conversation, which I declined with a short sentence. I went back to reading. She went back to playing on her phone. Maybe ten minutes later, I look up. She’s gone. I didn’t even notice.
In that moment, if I had a HUD showing the distribution of my attention, it would’ve shown 100%: reading. In the car with my mum, it would’ve shown 33%: window gazing, 33%: reading and 33%: conversation. As I write this and, I hope, as you read it, it shows 100%: Be where you are.
Such a HUD would allow us to see what we’re paying attention to, and when. But would we want to see? I doubt it. Because, for most of us, it would expose how bad we really are at paying attention to what we’re doing. It’s rare for us to be one hundred percent locked into what we’re doing. When we’re making breakfast we’re listening to the radio. When we’re eating dinner, we’re watching something on Netflix. When we’re at coffee with friends, we’re thinking about that message on Whatsapp. When we’re at home, we’re worrying about work and when we’re at work, we’re worrying about what’s going on at home.
This has become clear to me over the last few months. I’m rarely present. It takes a huge effort to block out everything. Even when I meditate and do breathing ladders in the morning, I end up thinking about ridiculous things. 10%: breathing. 30%: pain from my inflexible hips. 40%: the day’s work. 20%: craving food.
That’s my objective for the next few months. For the rest of my life I suppose. When I’m with friends, be with friends. When I’m with family, be with my family. When I’m reading, read. When I’m at jiu-jitsu, do jiu-jitsu. When I’m working, work. Don’t time travel, worrying about the past and obsessing over the future. Don’t do anything except what you’re doing right now. Be where you are. Nowhere else. Do what you're doing. Nothing else.