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Beyond Distraction

Updated: Jul 22, 2020

Imagine the tentacles of panic closing in on you, as you surrender in a session that is “gadget free” your technological “life-line” of choice, smartphone, tablet, what have you. You are suddenly compromised. Your physiology is manically looking for something to “hold,” something to peck at, pings and notifications, a universe beckoning with mass distraction, and virtual landing pods of social familiarity and cohesion.

There is a term now in countries for those seeking relief from this curious plethora of overlapping compulsions, often summed up as “web addiction.” And for those who actually toil in those digital fields, being immersed in web consciousness, curating so many minutes during peak hours, catching “breaking tweets”, staying current with various memes, catching scraps of developing stories and fusing them into narratives, are key aptitudes. And those who are mavens, well they lust for “followers” and those insatiable followers need to be “fed” on diets of episodic stimulus/response.

And even those not as actively toiling in the vineyards of digital influencing or fashion, can succumb to their own siren call. Facebook offers faux empowerment by giving everyone a “quasi-blog” and their own audience. Smartphones deluge people with an online torrent never further away than our own anxieties, or biases, or greed. Those without sustained thoughts can now traffic in “micro-thoughts” on Twitter, gorging on frequency if not caliber or meaningfulness of feedback or reaction. Then the Apps landed in our lives and life became detached from everything else, and thinking for yourself, or even “feeling” without socially sanctioned guard-rails, smacked of banality, or at times, in the land of PC trolls, high treason.

Eminent blogger Andrew Sullivan writes thus:

“If the internet killed you, I used to joke, then I would be the first to find out. Years later, the joke was running thin. In the last year of my blogging life, my health began to give out. Four bronchial infections in 12 months had become progressively harder to kick. Vacations, such as they were, had become mere opportunities for sleep. My dreams were filled with the snippets of code I used each day to update the site. My friendships had atrophied as my time away from the web dwindled. My doctor, dispensing one more course of antibiotics, finally laid it on the line: 'Did you really survive HIV to die of the web?'”

We are often deluded into thinking we are at the nerve center, a niche in an evolving global conversation. Unfortunately, everyone else is convinced of the same! We re-invented our instincts alas, have reveled in lack of sustained concentration, and no longer consider what it is to be human in this context.

A New Life

How shall we distinguish non-living from living? One dividing line is surely the range of engagement and aptitudes that are challenged and nurtured, and cultivated and which translate into a plethora of experiences that play across the entire range of our person-hood.

Are we enlarged to some extent, able to both immerse in the world and influence it, with our passions and purpose? Or do we cower away in virtual fortresses where we can call the shots, unable and unwilling to step out into the drama, the adventure, the challenge of being engrossed in actually living, working, interacting, expanding our senses while learning to still the mental and emotional chatter, to also engage with the spiritual, and to expose the mirage of 24/7 “immersion?”

The most typical way of parrying this concern is to solemnly show the “death of culture” being predicted from every advance, from the vernacular English of newly printed Bibles, to the mindless cacophony of television in the 50’s, to the kaleidoscope of cable choices, and now all the web “windows” into which and through which we can peer to amuse, bemuse and addle our faculties further. So, could it be, this is more of the same, just another cultural inflection point, and not something ominously dystopian?

But there is a seminal difference. All of our lives are being “wired” into this same circuitry, from education to politics to entertainment. Our tastes are being tracked, and under the guise of various beneficent service offerings, we are signed up to be surveilled and tracked. Algorithms are being incessantly generated to bait the hook of our attention, so we can witlessly follow, jumping through hoops of ever more intoxicating manufactured “demand.”

In the not so distant past, you “logged on,” usually at some stationary site, and this was distinct from processing the rest of your life. And even if you were sent hither and thither down various rabbit holes, you emerged into the relative clear light of day. But now, being “connected” is a perpetual state, and the diversionary detours can be accessed at any time, and we spend more time “there” than “here.”

There and Not There

And the addictive nature is demonstrated, for example, when backpacks come with battery power for smartphones. Of course, if the phone is there for emergency GPS, or calling for help, and we use it for a focused “task” and can readily be without it on the bulk of our hike, fantastic! Then we have enhanced life! But if we are “trapped,” constantly photographing every turn, capturing ourselves beaming inanely in front of every destination, as if these are truly attention-exciting social headlines, then we have kidnapped life from ourselves.

Binging on gossip and “information” and overdosing on distractions, numbs and deadens our senses, our awareness, and dampens our ability to just savor sights, sounds, moments, experiences, just as pouring “hot sauce” on chicken broth would disturb that appreciation.

Manically crouching over phones, driving with headphones, being “beeped” while playing with the dogs, scrolling for a confirmation while with the kids. Just look around… in a line for coffee, at the airport, twitching thumbs even in elevators, glazed eyes. No one looks up, and certainly few look “out” or even “in,” we just look down.

At dinner, entire families in their private zombie state, in isolated thralldom, while superficially “together.” The art of conversation lost, the “being” with another person, and taking in the nuances of what they say and what they don’t, picking up cues from body language, just giving the gift of attention… all that seems quaint, alien, shot full of anxious uncertainty.

A Releasing Retreat

Near Tahoe, a break from booze, and tobacco, and television, phones relegated to a few “pecks” at breaks, or perhaps for some, some desperate late night or early morning web renewal. Most of us though, were happy to use such access as necessary utilities for a few minutes each day… paying a bill, strictly functionally checking in at work, sending a “holding pattern” reply, and otherwise trusting the “mail away” message to do its trick.

The group had been practicing “Releasing” a varietal of “Mindfulness” that we teach, based on the teachings of Lester Levenson, and so silence was a balm we were seeking, not an alien to repel, or an imposition to somehow “survive.”

From the outside in, it would have appeared to casual observers as an orgy of boredom. This wasn’t a silent retreat, but there were patches of what Buddhists term “noble silence,” brief walks, quieting the mind. Researchers confirm that basking in such quietness it is not only a subjective tonic, but objectively medicinal and health-giving. It was the soil from which our consciousness sprang, and where we always historically repaired for renewal.

The ticking clock slows, the pace unwinds, what we value expands and magnifies. The “retreat” from religion in part may be because of how much “noise” we have inflicted into and onto religious practice, so far away from the “spaces” for the sacred, that once characterized the contemplative life. And so, people seek the spirit in other practices, where such peace can be rediscovered.

Reclaiming Joy

We notice acutely that joy requires sustained engagement. As a species we use our bodies and emotions and minds in concert to “practice” and gain skills and emerge with more intuitive excellence and this was true in many life crafts that made our living as well as hobbies by which we relaxed but also tested and extended ourselves.

The degree of emotional and adaptive passivity has mushroomed. We will take “risks” faster than cultivate “skills,” are unwilling to read or flex our imagination when we can just get a “sound bite” or a summary, try to “spin” our way to making money more than we might dedicate ourselves to gaining relative mastery in something.

We cannot bear the pain of conversing, of listening, of locating and using the right words…we are becoming “shadows” of ourselves. And in a sea of distracted people in private splurges of narcissism, where do we get the openings for recognizing each other? When might we “visit” together as once we used to, acknowledging those who with us compose a community and celebrating those bonds, even in simple everyday interactions, undistracted by virtual pyrotechnics or off-ramps? We “miss” each other all the time.

And we “miss” ourselves. So, you’re walking along, and you hear a piece of music you haven’t heard for a long time. 'Piano Man' by Billy Joel did it to me recently. I was back in another time and another place, a place that could not “be” today, of people, and relationships, and flow, a tempo of friendships and interaction. And I felt ineffably sad. Normally we rush past the sadness, or “chat” with someone about it, or send it out and “carpet bomb” our contacts with our experience.

But this time I stopped. Really stopped. And let it wash through me, let the sadness well up, honoring that past poignancy, with no distraction, or digital assistance. And I navigated as we all must, my own inner byways, finding inside myself through the music and the moment, both a somber twilight of heart-broken wistfulness and as well the breaking light of redeeming newness and a fresh welcoming of life. Time had to be taken and celebrated.

When All Our Experience Is Not Ours

All the experiences we don’t learn from, go through, or invite some measure of insight and enlightenment from, persecute us, imprison us, and recur as patterns or even emotional punishments. Either we grow past the past or we defend the outmoded – energy goes to one of those places.

“Intimacy” is often restated as “into me see.” It is the ultimate invitation. But I cannot show what I am fleeing from. And I cannot let anyone “see” what I will not sit still long enough to allow to be meaningfully revealed even to myself. We are all broken vessels to some extent, but what the vessel, with its imperfections holds and carries and conveys, can be holy.

To the extent that we will not experience the fullness of who we are, the scar tissue of our formative traumas delineates our personalities. And when we say “yes” to all of it, the light gradually but definitely dispels our shadows, and we do not so much “resolve” our challenges, as we outgrow them.

And then many of our fault lines actually evolve into quirks that are delightful, they are aspects of our character, they render us intriguingly distinctive. In working environments, we are often asked to bring so little of ourselves to work, that the small fragment that is towed there, is easily burned out, overwhelmed or stymied. In great environments, great performances are forthcoming, as so much more is made room for and is welcomed.

So many movies and TV shows seem faddishly familiar or are rehashes of past originals today. This is partly because we have a culture of imitation and we fear the risks of originality.

We consider “informality” proof of our freedom, but that might only be so if we were “free” to be either or both and knew and understood both. Then and only then would that be an expansion, rather than a simple collapse of standards and manners.

Too much of our society and too many of our mores seem remarkably repetitive, in fact, downright derivative.

The “Doing” Racket

Not only have we dialed up the “racket” of everyday life, but we have fallen for the “deadly compulsiveness of doing” without understanding “what” we’re doing or “why.” We are frantically active. There is an infinite succession of mindless commitments.

We are human “beings” though and not human “doings” and our beings are nourished where the ego camouflage is lessened… on mountaintops, by water, in open spaces and gardens, in woods, in sacred venues, in festive communion with loved ones, admiring art, being moved by music, basking in expressions of devotion and commitment in architecture, embracing great literature and drama, and in the ineffable quiet of sheer contemplative welcome in meditation, liturgy, and shared expressions of worship.

Timelessly, Thoreau issued his jeremiad against those pressures more than a century ago:

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear.”

Be Here Now

Like a safety valve, this releases the pent-up pressures of our wired bedlam. Though easily mockable, it is trying to achieve what our culture once routinely provided, and it reveals, perhaps, that we are not completely helpless in this newly distracted era. We can have compassion for our neuroses without congratulating ourselves for them. We can take succor from what Aldous Huxley identified as being part of our human legacy, across culture and time periods: a perennial philosophy.

In Christian tradition, for example, the resurgence of what is being called “Centering Prayer” is easier therefore to fathom with this perspective.

For many years I have been inspired by this tradition of exploring the quiet and intentionally being available to inspiration. This hails from inspiration in turn from the work of St.Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Thomas Merton and others.

The person most associated with it in recent years has been Abbot Thomas Keating and the marvelous lay contemplative Mary Mrozowski. Mary indicated the source of these practices as being based on the 17th century French spiritual classic Abandonment to Divine Providence by Jean Pierre de Caussade, as well as Father Keating's teachings and her own lived experience of transformation via surrender. She wrote:

"To welcome and let go is one of the most radically loving, faith-filled gestures we can make in each moment of each day. It is an openhearted embrace of all that is ourselves and in the world."

It is a way of being “available” and connecting to the essence of that loving invitation in our lives again and again, until it becomes a natural place to dock our awareness and consciousness.

And so, we are all invited to be “available” at key moments. There are books that invite our attention, landscapes asking to be walked, friends who would relish real company, life glowing with so many facets to embrace and humbly and openly experience. And while our capacity to undermine ourselves is too vast to catalog, for today’s civilization, the dissipation of focus, the easy appeal to “misguided” versions of superficial “joy-lite,” the exponential unremitting bombardment of distraction is our special challenge.

Our minds, our hearts and our souls are the stakes here in this attempted awakening. Otherwise, we may get so distracted we may “lose” our minds, tarnish our hearts, and as for our souls… well, we may even “forget” we have any.

Beyond distraction lies the ground of our being and becoming.

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