Friday, September 23, 2016

Mindless Distractions

"Paying Attention:
- in my meditation garden -

Last evening, while browsing through some of the new TV shows now premiering for this Fall season, I was struck by how “mindless" most of them seemed to be. For me, the new sitcoms weren’t even mildly funny and the endless barrage of relatively plot-less medical and police shows made daytime soap-operas seem like serious, heavy drama. It struck me that maybe these new shows were not really designed to provide viewers with biting comedy or engaging, thought-provoking drama? Maybe they were designed to be mindless distractions that allow people to escape from the busy day of their normal lives? Maybe they were designed to be an escape vehicle, a way out of all the news about terror and a way to forget about all that nasty political rhetoric that so saturates the media today?

Observing all those mindless distractions on TV last night I thought about how more and more people nowadays seem to be turning to all sorts of mindless distractions to escape from the stress or the fear or the boredom of their everyday lives.

I remember reading a recent article in the New York Times that reported some recent research about the average attention span for most people in today’s culture.  Attention span was defined as the amount of concentrated time on a task before become distracted. The article suggested that nowadays, the average attention span is at an alarmingly low eight seconds for the average person.

The article observed:

We can no longer wait in a grocery store line, or linger for a traffic light,
or even pause long enough to let a bagel pop from the toaster,
without reflexively reaching for a smartphone

This morning I was thinking about all those mindless distractions on the TV last night and about how hard it is for so many of us to pay attention to our lives.  As I sat in my garden, I looked out into the desert where I live and thought about the ancient 4th century Christian “Desert Monks” who went out into the wilderness to live their lives as faithful followers of Jesus.

At the heart of the “rule of life” for these ancient monastics was the practice of paying constant attention – engaging in a discipline of being awake and alert without distractions in every present moment:

When you are alone praying and meditating, pay attention. 
When you are working in the fields, pay attention.
When you share a meal with your fellow monks or when you welcome guests,
pay attention.
When you feel strong and healthy, pay attention.
When the heat of the desert bakes you to the bone, pay attention.
When the morning sun is brilliant and when the skies turn black with clouds,
pay attention. 

Although these words were written many centuries ago, the wisdom they offer is a powerful antidote to the spiritual poison of mindless distractions and the eight-second attention span of our own contemporary times.

Like those ancient Desert Monks, the Buddha also suggested that paying attention and staying focused in moment was at the heart of a journey to enlightenment. He taught that mindfulness and compassion were the two most important disciplines to practice for anyone who seeks deeper peace and greater wisdom.

Many people seek to be distracted from their everyday routine because they think their lives are too stressful, or fearful, or boring; but perhaps the opposite is true. When we start to pay attention to our lives, it’s amazing what will be revealed to us.

I remember reading something in one of my magazines of Buddhist essays:

When you pay attention to your everyday life
You will discover something truly wonderful.
Our regular, old, pointless lives are actually incredibly beautiful –
amazingly, astoundingly, relentlessly, mercilessly joyful!

It seems to me that none of us can ever really pay attention to our lives if all we give it is eight seconds; and of course, you don’t have to go out to a desert to practice playing closer attention to life. Maybe all you have to do is just turn off the smartphone the next time you go to Starbucks and see what bubbles up.

Emily Dickinson wrote:

Life is so astonishing,
it leaves little time for anything else.

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