Do I have your attention? I hope because as I would like to borrow it for few minutes while I try to articulate what I have been focussing  my own attention on for the last few days. Our attention is being sold, fought for, captured, harnessed and directed, be it consciously or subconsciously, all day, every day. Each day we make distinct choices about who and what we give it to and what we get in return. Attention is defined as:

“Notice taken of someone or something; the regarding of someone or something as interesting or important.”

With that being the case, how carefully do we guard what takes our attention? What does it take to “notice” someone or something? What fulfils our modern criteria of considering something “important and interesting” that is worthy of our attention? Like the red laser beam for cats, it doesn’t seem the yard stick is very high. Attention ends up taking our time and time is how we occupy this space and live our lives. So how we value what we give our attention to is really how we value our life. And it seems if we don’t consciously protect, defend and deliberately choose what and who gets our attention, our time and subsequently our lives can be asininely flittered away.

Grabbing our prized attention is a polished and colossal enterprise that pokes its ubiquitous fingers in our faces from cradle to grave. Modern media in all its forms, from print, radio, TV and the internet has cross pollinated into all devices. We can get any media almost anywhere. Modern media is set up primarily to capture our attention to draw us into some obvious, or not so obvious, sales funnel. We are society under the spell of consumption and distraction or more aptly, the consumption of distraction. The global media holds the wand and those who own and control it are the witches casting the spells. As recent figures from the USA show, the adult population now spends an average of 10hrs a day consuming media, in the UK its 9hrs (“entertainment” and “leisure time” are terms that conveniently cloak the reality of the business of distraction). As this is where we have come to, taking away time asleep, over 60% of the average person’s waking attention is “paid” to media in one form or another.  


TV and digital (smartphones/tablets, laptops) makes up the bulk of it. I have written before about what I see as the destructive force of advertising and its relationship to capitalism. There is a mindless aspect to cultural forces that drive and direct us into inane and valueless media consumption. Yet their construction and function are not mindless. Facebook has been crafted just like slot machines to draw people in, entice, reward, and payout emotional hits and highs to ensure eyes are exposed to its advertisers’ products. Most mainstream media is carefully and thoughtfully crafted to keep people consuming, ignorant and disconnected with how they truly feel.

Yet I think there is another layer to the phenomena of how our attention is being hijacked and colonisation by all modern forms of media. The attention we pay to media that distracts and entertains us damages us beyond a vacuous message of individualism and propaganda. It seems on a broader societal level the world has become so alienating, dehumanising and disconnected that “distraction” is a commodity in high demand. A destructive feedback loop then gets generated. The more I disengage and take my 10 hrs locked to a screen, the more alienated and disconnected I am, requiring further distraction to avoid how alienated  and disconnected I have become. If you add all the other methods of escape, from drugs, alcohol, sex, food and novelties on offer and within reach, it seems we are occupied with everything but our own internal states and, by its very nature, the ability to truly empathise with the internal states of others. I’ll whore my attention to anything but how I feel inside, anything but that. Given the majority of people dislike or utterly loath their jobs, are burdened with debt, lack community and connection and are increasingly dislocated from nature, the need to employ some means of distraction and diversion makes sense. Modern life screws us and then forces us to work so we can afford to pay for something to make us forget that fact. Urgh, whose idea was this again? Like the alcoholic drinking whiskey to numb his/her pain, it’s not a long-term solution and is making whatever problems there even worse, even if the feeling of that fact is delayed.  


So I think to pull away from the intense stream of distraction, it must be very conscious and courageous choice. Otherwise, we just wake up on auto-pilot and succumb to the river of data-clamour that caries so many of us through the day. I am writing about this as it’s something I have been paying attention to the last few weeks: the question of where, on who and what my attention goes to and what is the value of the time I spend doing something. Yet when you switch the off the button of info-commotion, it does bring up an uncomfortable quiet. Yet staying with it, allowing oneself to witness all that’s going on in us and all around us without the background noise of media, slows things down and births a burgeoning appreciation of the sacred in the simplest of things. As we pay more attentive consideration to our inner-space, we see how much of our culture’s dysfunctional narrative pumped through advertising and media has become internalised through voices of self-negation, limitation and powerlessness. Let’s face it, feeling whole and enough isn’t good for sales.

There is great power in giving our attention to what we give our attention to. Not the fixing, repairing or solving, rather just a kind of compassionate observation of what is going on and why. Spending 10hrs a day fixed to screen, which can end up being 30 years of person’s life come the age of 80, surely isn’t something anyone would consciously choose to do with the bulk of their waking life. This is an alarming statistic beyond the pointlessness of the time spent, but what does it say about a life? That to make it 80 years old, we need to spend 30 years fixated and hypnotised on a flicking screen. The saddest part is that is obviously very true for many of us. Yet that reality is changeable but to do so, we must take ownership of the fact we are doing it, understand why we are doing it and face any discomfort that arises when we stop doing it. If we could just stay with what we are trying to distract ourselves away from for long enough to see the immense beauty, depth and promise that lies beneath it. As the simple act of just spending a little more time being with ourselves, each other and the earth we reside on, then solutions will be born, healing can take place and unseen possibilities arise from that sacred space of bearing witness. 

One of the most powerful shocks of the Middle Passage is the collapse of our tacit contract with the universe–the assumption that if we act correctly, if we are of good heart and good intentions, things will work out. We assume a reciprocity with the universe. If we do our part, the universe will comply. Many ancient stories, including the Book of Job, painfully reveal the fact that there is no such contract, and everyone who goes through the Middle Passage is made aware of it.”  James Hollis

I really love this passage by James Hollis. It’s a brutal truth that reveals itself when our belief of life’s reciprocity gets continuously shot down. It’s an understandable assumption in our “golden rule” universe. We are told “what we give is what we get”, “how you treat others is how you will be treated” and now the immensely popular “law of attraction”, promising that if you want something badly enough you can manifest it into your life. Yet painfully we discover that these understandings of how our relationship with the universe works, are completely out of touch with how the universe actually works. We forget the contract we conjured up within our mind never did get signed off on by the universe.

We all to varying degrees experience moments when life just feels blatantly and unquestionably unfair. The “bad things happen to good people” experience can create a certain validation of life’s existential absurdity, which if swallowed whole can take us to a very despairing and disenchanted place. Then even if in our own personal lives we manage to shield ourselves from this, it’s impossible to look out into the world and see such abject and obscene poverty and injustice without questioning the inherit fairness of life.

Of course, seeing unfairness and injustice and attempting to change bad situations into better ones is the basis for all constructive social change. Yet there is a certain type of betrayal and unfairness that is just found in life not going the way we want it, no matter how reasonable we think that expectation is. The loss of a child is an example of the type of pain that seems to go against the natural order of things. Yet that pain is very much part of the natural order, as felt by millions through the world, from the beginning of time, though it is an event in which the randomness can makes us question the fairness of life.

For me, at least, when it comes to the more painful and traumatic events in my life that have left me emotional scarred and wounded, they were not circumstances in any way that I choose to create. Sometime things just happen. Certain dysfunctional and dark forces sweep you in their path and you come out effected and marked. So you are left with these anguished questions of did I somehow karmically deserve this? Was I to blame? What part am I now responsible for? Why did this happen to me?  Wrestling with the unfairness of what happens ended up creating a circular and infinite loop that I was never really able to resolve.

So at some point I had to be willing to step out and choose to stop viewing life and people in the binary terms of fair or unfair, and rather just accept that some things for now I just don’t know or understand. Maybe I just don’t have all the data required. Maybe I don’t hold a wider enough sense of self-awareness or deep enough insight into how the web of life works. Maybe I will at some point in my life, or maybe I won’t. As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke so eloquently puts in it.

“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”

Knowing this doesn’t assume that life is meaningless and events are all random, rather our need for some certainty or fairness from life just doesn’t fit with how things work. Knowing this allows us to not feel so shocked and devastated when life doesn’t go our way, no matter how deserving of it we may feel.

We are faced with the humbling reality that we actually don’t really know how it works and neither does anyone else. (Be wary of anyone who claims with certainty they do.) This invites us to embrace the mystery and make peace with our inability to have it all worked out. Life is actually unfathomable and rather inheritably unfair and we may just have to leave it at that. From here we start to be able to live life on life’s terms, not ours. We live in how things are, rather how we expect them to be. It also anchors us more deeply in the present, as often grappling with life’s unfairness occurs around the processing of what was, rather than what is; what happened, rather than what’s happening.

In my experience this is not easy. That need to make our own tacit rules, to set up some  laws of life and rules that follow some kind of order, runs very deep within us. The utter uncertainty of life and its unpredictable twists and turns threatens our ego’s need for control and security. “Relax, nothing is under control”, is easier said than done. Yet as we come back to the simple act of acceptance this can give us a certain kind of peace. Acceptance of not knowing isn’t capitulation or defeat. Rather just questioning the legitimacy that somehow we have a right to know everything or the vanity and narcissism that this is even somehow its’ possible. As we no longer command the tides of  life, we really start be at home with our life. So we can look at our lives like the night sky littered with stars. As we gaze in awe above we just surrender to the fact its beauty, mystery and depth is just unfathomable and that’s ok.

The denial of childhood trauma: The billion dollar industry that no one wants to talk about

There is no mental health or drug addiction crisis; rather it’s just a crisis of unresolved and unacknowledged pain that our economic system exploits and profits from.

By E.F Nicholson 

We often hear in the media about the crisis in mental health and addiction. In the US now there are constant reports about the “opioid epidemic”, and understandably so. The most recent figures from the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention show that 64,070 people died from drug overdoses in 2016. This was a 21% increase from the year before, and they predict the figure for 2017 will be even higher. That’s just those who died, let alone the 2.1 million struggling with ongoing chronic opioid addiction. We then hear about the crisis in mental health, where depression and anxiety have increased so much so that a recent study has shown how one in six (16%) of the population have taken some form of prescription medication for their mental problems over the course of the year. Adding to that, alcohol addiction continues to increase at the staggering rate of 49% since 2000. This translates into one in eight American adults, or 12.7% percent of the U.S. population, now meeting the diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder, according to the study. Although not to the severity of the US, the upward trends are also occurring in both Europe and Australia. You add illicit drug use, pornography addiction, and the other myriad numbing options we have available, and we see industries making billions of dollars, not in the healing of pain but its ultimate suppression. Then, in a weird twist of irony, these very means of supressing pain enable us to keep functioning the cogs of the machine that enforces and amplifies the very pain needing to be supressed!! But more on that later.

So why so much pain?

Studies over the past thirty years have revealed a large portion of that pain can be traced back to unresolved childhood trauma. The ACE (adverse childhood experiences) study conducted by the CDC in the US (which I have covered in more depth here in a previous article) revealed the staggering statistic that during childhood, 28% of the study had experienced physical abuse and 21%  had suffered some form of sexual abuse. Versions of this study have been repeated and have yielded the same conclusions. This particular CDC study looked at people who were white, college educated and middle class, so this is a sample from what “normal” supposedly looks like. As you move toward poorer and more marginalised sections of the population, the rates of trauma increased even further. Childhood abuse and other emotionally damaging experiences are so prevalent today that trauma-focused psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk claimed they are the single most important health problem facing the US.

The profitable elephant in the room

This isn’t to say every discernible problem regarding mental health and addiction stems from unresolved childhood trauma, but there is no doubt that much does. It’s a fundamental starting point in addressing a long-term solution regarding how we, as a society, tackle the growing problems of addiction and mental health.  However, in the media and mainstream discourse we talk, discuss and argue about everything but this simple basic fact. I think that one reason for this is that the source of trauma arises from the sanctity of the modern family unit. This isn’t “stranger danger” or “catch a predator” type villains, rather it’s our parents, grandparents and immediate family members that are most often the perpetrators of such anguish and abuse. Recognising the intimate proximity to our supposed normality is just too confronting for most people to handle. Secondly, there is a problem in how we address issues of peoples’ wellbeing through the lens of an individual’s pathology, rather than the social, familial and cultural systems those issues arise from. Treating problems with sellable substances, on a person-to-person basis, is an easier solution than addressing the very nature of societal structures themselves. Lastly, when reading these statistics in a health context, it’s easy to become detached from how they all represent increases in business profits. The fact that “every problem has a product to be purchased to provide the solution” is a big part of the very problem itself. The neoliberal dogma of “markets can solve every problem” fails when we see so much that this ideology is part of the very problem itself.

We don’t heal what we never feel.

Michael Leunig

So the end result is that we have millions of traumatised children maturing into adulthood with the expectation of ending up a somehow-functioning member of society. Yet the question not often asked is, what kind of society do they enter?  What does the experience of living in this world offer in terms of acknowledgement, healing and care? The answer, in fact, is worse than nothing. Rather they are actively encouraged to deny and supress whatever is needed to heal.   Markets provide immediate yet superficial relief from pain, an emotional pain that the teenagers entering adulthood are often not even aware they have. From food, drugs, drink, sex and electronic devices, children are directed early on to know and seek out anything and everything that gives them respite from their unrecognized pain.

What’s on offer?

The nature of our capitalist worshiping society forcefully thrusts us all into various roles: the role of workers, the gender roles of men and women, and the most critical role of all — “rabid consumer”. These roles further disconnect people from their interior world and disenfranchises them from their sense of agency and autonomy. The majority of wage earners loathe their work and endure because of survival, not out of genuine choice. In addition, the money we earn to subsist allows us access to the products that enable them to further supress our pain. For many, “keeping it all under” seems essential to be able to be a functioning member of society. As Laura K. Kerr, author of the book “Dissociation in Late Modern America: A Defense Against Soul?” mentions in her blog:

Daniel Lord Smail makes a connection between global capitalism, social hierarchies, and the body’s reaction to threats. Smail argues capitalism exploits the body’s survival responses (i.e., freeze, fight, flight, and submission) by creating the conditions of psychological domination as well as providing relief from the feelings of powerlessness that capitalism and social hierarchies engender. According to Smail, capitalism generates stress through its unpredictability and hierarchical power structures, but it also alleviates stress by producing an economy organized around the production and circulation of addictive substances and practices.

We all yearn to belong, with connection, serenity and meaningfulness at the centre of our lives. Yet the reality is the prevalence of unresolved childhood trauma is not only unacknowledged but sadly exploited by the economic system its survivors live within.  We are essentially caught in a vicious circle: in order for large sections of society to function they need to supress their pain, as our economy is built on function and nothing more. There is no room or encouragement for people to be how they truly feel, rather the wheels just keep turning and economic necessity doesn’t allow the luxury of genuine self-reflection. In addition to profits gained by keeping people numb, it also ensures that they never feel the appropriate anger and outrage in response to how utterly screwed over they are by a system that is built at the cost of the many for the benefit of the few.

The problem can’t be the solution

Human problems can’t be solved by inhumane systems, and the reality is that the way we work, interact and consume with all its alienation, disconnection and distraction takes us away from our humanness. Sadly, this move to feel less or feel nothing doesn’t come from conscious choice, rather unconscious necessity. As Erich Fromm so aptly puts it:

“A person who has not been completely alienated, who has remained sensitive and able to feel, who has not lost the sense of dignity, who is not yet “for sale”, who can still suffer over the suffering of others, who has not acquired fully the having mode of existence – briefly, a person who has remained a person and not become a thing – cannot help feeling lonely, powerless, isolated in present-day society. He cannot help doubting himself and his own convictions, if not his sanity. He cannot help suffering, even though he can experience moments of joy and clarity that are absent in the life of his “normal” contemporaries. Not rarely will he suffer from neurosis that results from the situation of a sane man living in an insane society, rather than that of the more conventional neurosis of a sick man trying to adapt himself to a sick society. In the process of going further in his analysis, i.e. of growing to greater independence and productivity, his neurotic symptoms will cure themselves.” 

Facing what’s there for ourselves and others

The solution requires first that we are honest about the extent of the childhood trauma so many people carry within them that is most often unrecognized and denied.  Secondly, as individuals, we need to go through our own process of facing our pain, whatever its origin, and doing so requires we put down our beer, turn off the TV or tablet, and be quiet enough for long enough to let what’s there rise to the surface and be seen and heard. As we become more skilled and honest about our own interior wounds, gifts and humanness, it puts us in a better position to help and support these who have yet to get there. We are all in this together, my pain is yours and yours is mine, mi casa es tu casa. It’s just an inescapable reality and the sooner we embrace and accept it the sooner we can do the healing required to move forward as one whole humanity.