For years I’ve been interested in the topic of attention: what is it, in the first place? And above all, how does one achieve it? The French philosopher Simone Weil recounts that a great light was shed on this issue when she discovered that attention is not achieved by effort: our very striving to pay attention frequently distracts us. Rather, attention stems from a certain “negative effort” whereby we clear our mind of distractions simply by letting them drift off—perhaps noting our thoughts on a piece of paper so that we can later return to them—and letting ourselves instead be filled by the object we wish to attend to, whether it be a book, a class, a movie, a person, or God himself.
In modern life the breakdown of attention tempts many, many people to engage in multitasking, doing many things at the same time, nearly always in an unsatisfactory manner. In the face of this fragmentation, I have always defended doing one thing after another, with a smile and with inner peace, putting all our attention in this one activity. And if time is lacking and we are unable to finish everything, we need to simply recognize this fact. For example, one of the things that delights me about writing is precisely that we can only do it well when our intelligence is fully engaged in it. Doubtless a soccer player could say the same about a match, or an artist about his or her musical performance. Attention is always a measure of quality—at least subjectively—of the work we are undertaking: quality is never the fruit of chance.
I was impressed this week upon reading an article in the New York Times by Pico Iyer—whom I admire greatly—concerning the temporal dislocation of attention that harms so many people. Instead of paying attention to the present—the here and now—we spend much of our time worrying about future events that are completely outside of our control, that we can do nothing about. And if we are not concerned about the future, we allow ourselves to be caught up in regrets about things from the past that rise from memory to afflict us, and which we can in no way modify.
A few months ago, one of my brighter students recommended that I read “The Power of Now”, the best-seller by Eckhart Tolle subtitled “A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment”. This book, which I found rather tedious and repetitive—checking in at over two hundred pages—aspires to teach its readers how to live in the present moment without letting themselves be caught up in imagination and memory, and thereby to become masters of their own lives. I bring this up because a few days ago I gave a talk at the Gaztelueta School in Bilbao. My topic was “Faith as a life-attitude for teachers”, which I prepared in the context of the Year of Faith proclaimed by the Pope. I don’t recall precisely how the topic came up, but in the question and answer period after my talk I spoke to the students in attendance about enjoying the present, for we can only find God and other people when we are living in the now. God is not in our memory—the past—nor in our imagination—the future—nor do we find our fellow men and women there. On leaving the school I ran into one of its teachers, who asked me—a bit guiltily—what I thought about Eckhardt’s self-help bestseller. I told him that I was totally in agreement with his principal thesis, although he didn’t need to fill 200 pages in order to get it across.
Over the last few days I have been reading Mark Twain (1835-1910), who is more than the famous writer of children’s novels that we know from our youth. I have just run into a passage where Reginald Selkirk, the Mad Philosopher, says to “Her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race”:
Our civilization is wonderful in certain spectacular and meretricious ways; wonderful in scientific marvels and inventive miracles; wonderful in material inflation, which it calls advancement, progress and other pet names; wonderful in its spying-out of the deep secrets of Nature—and its vanquishment of her stubborn laws; wonderful in its extraordinary financial and commercial achievements; wonderful in its hunger for money, and in its indifference as to how it is acquired; […]
It is a civilization which has destroyed the simplicity and repose of life; replaced its contentment, its poetry, its soft romance-dreams and visions with the money-fever, sordid ideals, vulgar ambitions, and the sleep which does not refresh; it has invented a thousand useless luxuries, and turned them into necessities, it has created a thousand vicious appetites and satisfies none of them; it has dethroned God and set up a shekel in His place. 
I was greatly impacted by the Mad Philosopher’s last affirmation, for it seems to me that exchanging God for money is, ultimately, the same thing as trading the present moment for a future that will never be able to satisfy our expectations. Replacing God with money as an object of our attention is equivalent to taking out a crushing mortgage on our lives, refusing to live in the present so we can obtain a hoped-for future we couldn’t ordinarily reach. This must be at the root of the economic crisis that has affected us so greatly in Spain. It may sound harsh to say it here, but I believe that if we want to live life fully, if we want to live in the present, if, when all is said and done, we want to be happy, we must replace the omnipresence of money with the presence of God.
 Twain, M. (Clemens, Samuel), “Extract from the Discourse of Reginald Selkirk, the Mad Philosopher, to Her Grandeur, the Acting Head of the Human Race“, in The Bible According to Mark Twain: Writings on Heaven, Eden, and the Flood, Howard G. Baetzhold and Joseph B. McCullough (eds.) (Athens, OH: University of Georgia Press), 1995, p. 75-76.