The phenomenon of selective attention was convincingly demonstrated several years ago in an experiment called “The Invisible Gorilla.”3 In this experiment, observers were asked to watch a short video of six people passing basketballs to each other and to count how many times the balls were passed. During the video, someone wearing a gorilla suit strolled into the middle of the action, faced the camera, thumped their chest, and then slowly left the field of view. When asked about what they had seen, about half of the observers did not mention the gorilla. They had not seen it at all. As instructed, they had counted the number of passes but the gorilla was invisible to them. When the gorilla was pointed out, they were amazed they had not seen it. This experiment demonstrates that people often see only what they want to see, that they don’t see everything that’s going on, and that they have no idea they are missing so much.
Sometimes we consciously choose what we give our attention to, such as the number of times the basketballs were passed, but often our choices are unconscious. These unconscious choices are influenced by our beliefs and expectations about life. We focus on what we want to see or expect to see. This is called confirmation bias. And it is extremely common. Here’s an example with terrible consequences: Early physiologists believed that animals could not feel pain. This enabled them to do horrifically painful experiments on living creatures, despite their cries, screams, and avoidant behavior.
The physiologists’ beliefs made them deaf and blind to the animals’ suffering. Bringing this forward to today, we might ask ourselves how our beliefs and expectations blind and deafen us. What are we not seeing and hearing? One of the things we may not be paying attention to is the pain and suffering we are inflicting on the earth and each other. In other words, we may not be hearing Thich Nhat Hahn’s bells of mindfulness. If we were more present to the earth and to each other, we would see and hear the misery we cause and probably act quite differently.
Now that we’ve considered the two main challenges to being in the here and now, let’s look at how they can be overcome and what helps us to be present.