Last evening it was too hot to go outdoors, so I decided to watch a little TV and I was struck by how “mindless’ most of the programs seemed to be. The sitcoms weren’t even mildly funny to me and the endless barrage of relatively plot-less medical and police shows made daytime soap-operas seem like serious drama. I wondered if maybe these 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 to hide from all the news of a catastrophic flood devastating Houston, to forget about threats of nuclear missiles in North Korea, to avoid all the worries about work or relationships or finances?
Observing all those mindless distractions on TV last night, I also thought about how many people nowadays seem to be turning to all sorts of other distractions to escape from the stress or the fear or the boredom of their everyday lives.
I recall an 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 observation really rings true for me. I always find it odd to go into a place like Starbucks (or even a restaurant) and see groups of people sitting together and looking at their smartphones. Often times there is little or no talking with companions at the same table, just checking emails, texting, tweeting or browsing the web, everyone retreating into their “own little worlds,” oblivious to what is going on in the present in the moment.
The problem with all this mindless distraction is that it robs us of the richness life has to offer when we really pay attention to each and every moment of our everyday routine.
As I think about it, some of the most tender and wonderful insights in my life have come to me in the times and places where I was most tempted to being mindless.
When I am in Starbucks, instead of browsing the social media on my smartphone, I often try to focus my awareness to the present moment and I have inevitably found some greater wisdom revealed to me. I have noticed the innocent smile of a small child that brought great joy to me, I have been aware of an older couple holding hands as they talked about their grandkids and I had a powerful sense of the enduring bond of love.
When I sit in the “waiting room” of a doctor’s office, instead of “burying my head” in a magazine, I often try to pay attention in the moment and once again the “moment” is almost always a source of revelation to me. I once noticed the exceptional kindness of a receptionist who eased the anxiety of a nervous patient, at another time, tears came to my eyes when I witnessed the loving care of a wife who was gently comforting her frail husband. These were all wonderful, tender moments that deepened my own humanity, moments I would have missed if I allowed myself to be distracted and to drift into mindlessness.
I recall one of my favorite passages from an essay in one of my Buddhist magazine.
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!
The essay concluded with this wise and insightful advice:
Don’t miss anything.
Pay attention to everything.
Find out what it all means and do what it wants of you.
Today, instead of giving into all the many distractions so readily available in our everyday routine and instead of paying attention to something new every eight seconds, we might all do well to pay closer attention to all that each moment has to offer us and therein discover something “truly wonderful.”