The World is in Our Way—The Modern Problem of Distraction (or nobody is where they are)

Living in the now, to be present, to be in the moment, these are the mantras of our age. But everything seems designed to keep us “caught up” and distracted. There is more information in one Sunday edition of The New York Times than most people one hundred years ago had to face in their lifetime. Commercials and media constantly celebrate our ability to be connected with technology—but often they are celebrating disconnection. We are stuck online or in our cell phones, texting when we should be playing, then playing (online) when we should be sleeping, then sleeping when we should be studying. This is the life of my students right now, high school kids. When I see them texting at 7:15 in the morning, I ask them who they could possibly have anything to say to right now. “I’m telling everyone I’m here,” is usually the response. “Where else would you be?” I love the connectivity of it all, but there is a disconnect as well. When my students are out with friends (and this is true of adults too), they spend much of their time texting the friends they are not with. Why? I’m told—by them—that they do this so that they can know whether they’re other friends are doing something more fun. Then they go see their other friends and spend that time texting the friends they just left. So they (and we) are never actually present to the friends they are physically with. This is normal for kids raised with cell phones, just as Googling has gotten too normal for us adults. (During a recent four-hour power outage, I had to stop myself at least ten times from stepping into the office to Google “what to do during a power outage.” I should have been Googling, “how did I Google before Google?”)

What happens, I believe, is that we have created a world where nobody actually is where they are. I’m physically here, but my mind is there. And when I’m there, my mind is back here. I miss my kids when I’m at work and I think about work when I’m with kids. The worst part is, we don’t know that being where we are not is our natural state. As Buddhist teacher Jim Fronsdale says, “we are so distracted, we don’t even know we’re distracted.” The question is: How can we BE HERE NOW?  (Note, this is a continuation of my series on modern problems–see my recent post on The Modern Problem of Obstruction).

Even though I’m a mystic at heart, I believe that this problem can be solved in a very practical manner. Mantras and cues are needed to remind us, constantly, that we need to focus on what is happening in front of us. Just as I do not trust my physical health to a mystical feeling, I would not trust my brain to keep me in the moment.

I am one of those guys who would not mind an all beer, pepperoni pizza, Twinkie diet. I could actually live like that, if it did not make me fat, miserable, and moody. I need to listen to the experts, the doctors. I need to moderate my eating and drinking while forcing myself to stay active. It’s taken years of practice to really love running, vegetables, and water—and now I do a lot of all three. It’s the same with mental awareness. Listen to the experts. Find strategies to stay grounded in the moment. Use those strategies even if they go against everything we see in the media. We’ve become health conscious enough to realize that the commercials about TGI Friday’s and Budweiser are not to be listened to all the time. We need to be able to do the same with commercials about cell phones and media. We can’t actually live like those people in the commercials who make cell phones, laptops, and printers look like enlightenment.

The wise and aware masters tell us we need to:

Unplug! turn off your media devices if you want to be present. For me it’s not the phone but the interent. I need to have my laptop pried from my cold dead hands. Thankfully, I have a resident Zen master, my two year old daughter, who grabs my hand and pulls me to the toy room.

Undo! multi-tasking is fancy language for doing too much without paying attention. Do one thing well, whether it is mow the lawn or play My Little Pony with the kids.

Turn off the idiot box! Having the TV (and even radio) on permanently, is another form of distraction from being fully present. If you are used to having the TV permanently on, try going a day or two without.

Reminders! Building into your day routines and reminders can be very beneficial. I’ve heard advice from many spiritual masters on this subject. Every time the phone rings, wait a few more rings and use it as a cue to take mindful breaths. If you have a watch that beeps on the hour, use that as your reminder to refocus on the moment. Build into your day a coffee or tea routine that gives you a chance to be present. Take any activity, in fact, that you do often throughout the day and build a mindful breathing routine around it. Maybe there are some stairs you climb often. Make them your mindful steps. As a teacher, I try to use the passing time as a moment to sit and breath mindfully. You can use your water bottle as a reminder. As you drink, be aware of the liquid going into your body. Feel it nourishing you. Take some mindful breaths.

Routines! use a wake up and bedtime routine as a way to focus on your goal of being more present during the day. A short prayer, mantra, or a poem before you start the day and when you end the day can do wonders for building your sense of presence. I love Thich Naht Hanh’s book Present Moment, Wonderful Moment. It’s full of little routines and reminders that can help you be present.

My wife and I believe family routines are very important as well. My family has fairly rigid supper and bedtime routines which serve as benchmarks for the day and force us to be mindfully together (or at least try to be).

Change is slow. Start with something concrete you can do. First and foremost, before you add too much to your life, think about what you can subtract.

Everyday, for at least a little bit, you need to GIVE UP any thought of the past or the future AND DIE to everything but the present moment. You’ll be glad you did.

I get lots of visitors but not many comments.  Too many people like me…I’m always too shy to leave a comment.  Come on.  Join the conversation.  What are some ways you stay present?

Read more about:  Meditation, Living in the Moment, The Give Up and Die Philosophy.