“Most people don't realize that the mind constantly chatters. And yet, that chatter winds up being the force that drives us much of the day in terms of what we do, what we react to, and how we feel.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
Pay attention and do the right thing.
The older I get the more aware I become of how precious life is, and how important it is for me to use my time usefully and in integrity with my values and beliefs.
At the same time, I’m also aware of the increasingly complexity of life and the many and varied demands on my time and attention. I’m all too aware, also, of my capacity for distraction from the task in hand, especially when I am sat at my computer with all the lure of Facebook and news sites, as well as incoming emails and Twitter, all of which can appear far more interesting than whatever it is I am supposed to be working on. But if I don’t want to die with a life unlived, then I don’t want my remaining days, weeks and years to be spent on things that don’t serve me or are out of integrity.
These challenges will no doubt be familiar – they are common themes in my clients and students, and technology has only made the problems more acute. There have been several occasions when I’ve been out walking in the woods, and had to resist the Dr Strangelove impulses of my hand reaching for my phone to check my emails or Facebook! Texting whilst driving is known to be more dangerous than driving while drunk, and yet it seems to be common practice for many people, and I always wince when I see drivers holding a phone to their heads while steering round a sharp bend with their free hand.
The real challenge for us is to pay attention to the things that are important to us, without being getting caught by the things that distract us. How do we focus on the things that we care about, on the tasks that matter? How do we drive with attention and courtesy? How do we stop ourselves from over-eating? These are the everyday challenges we all have to face.
What can we do? Part of the solution can be technical – I can turn off notifications on my computer when I want to focus on an article; I’ve simply stopped buying chocolate so that I don’t have the temptation of it calling me from the fridge. On the other hand, I’ve spent many hours happily occupying myself in organising task-management software to make me more efficient and productive, without actually achieving anything other than a nicely organised to-do list! Again, a quick browse online will reveal that this is not uncommon – there are thousands of web-pages devoted to finding the best task-management software or system – I know, I’ve distracted myself with many of them, and read many books on the subject! I’d go so far as to say that technology and clever systems by themselves are simply not up to the task of helping us to keep our attention where it should be.
No. We have to train the attention. We have to train ourselves to not yield to the temptations to distract ourselves. And that takes time. I’ve been practising meditation on and off for several years now. At first, my attempts were inconsistent and irregular. Even today, I can still spend several minutes distracting myself with other tasks before sitting down to meditate. But, for the last couple of years, I’ve meditated almost every day, and it’s beginning to make a difference. I know that because I’ve got to almost the end of this piece without distracting myself – something I simply wasn’t able to do a year ago. I think we live in a time when we are consistently being trained to distract ourselves – smart phone notifications, advertising, consistent incoming emails and calls. To counter that, I think there’s only one solution – we have to train ourselves to be able to hold our attention, and not to succumb to every temptation to go off track, whether that is frittering hours online, eating too much chocolate, or becoming the kind of person we don’t want to be when we’re driving. One thing I am realising slowly is that the more I pay attention, the easier it is for me to know what the right action is and the more likely it is that I will act accordingly.
I know that I can’t take this for granted. The temptations are always there – just as much as the thoughts are always there when I sit to meditate – but consistent, regular practice, gives us a good chance of staying more connected to what’s important to us. And, the more we practice, the more fluent we become. Slowly, reluctantly, I’m learning that the only thing that matters is practice, practice, practice – practising even when I don’t need to, so that when I do need to I have half a chance of doing the right thing in that moment. Moment by moment.
Did you make it to the end of the article without distracting yourself? How easy is it for you to stay focussed on what you care about?
Do you have a practice that helps you to regularly train your attention? If you’re interested in developing a practice, then I’ve found the Headspace and the John Kabat Zin apps both very helpful.