by Laura Crosby
Let’s play with our little friend Distraction.
No judgment or guilt. Just curiosity and kindness.
It’s a guilt-ridden topic. “Distracted by distractions” is something we’re not supposed to be.
Maybe it’s on the unwritten list of self-improvements underneath “be a better person.”
Thinking about it can be uncomfortable. Deep breath. No need to go to war with ourselves. Second, we can handle a little discomfort together, can’t we? And we are together in this. Who among us is immune to the crush of things vying for our attention?
As I relate to my own distract-ability in this Epidemic of Distraction, I tend to blame
technology first — for obvious good reasons. The “news” runs a close second, and the two seem addictively enmeshed. In fact, distractions today (and our addiction to them) seem unique to our New Media Age. After all, you don’t find epidemics of distraction in the history books.
So let’s acknowledge that “today’s world” is manipulating our attention and literally driving us to distraction. But what else is at play here? How do we relate to distraction? Are we victim or author of our habits of distraction? Where is our agency and what is our intention?
When T.S. Eliot described being, “distracted from distraction by distraction,” he captured
today’s nuanced, complex predicament of distraction – only he did so long before smart
phones, internet, social media, email, texting, open AI, and device-driven cars, jobs, and
For poetry fans, he writes:
… Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Excerpted from Burnt Norton by T.S.Eliot (circa 1936)
“Human kind cannot bear very much reality,” Eliot claims in the same poem. He writes of “inner freedom from the practical desire,” of “release from action and suffering … from the inner and the outer compulsion.” These are longings of the human heart, transcending time, place, technology.
One interpretation of the Tao Te Ching says this about our reaction to “very much” reality:
“Restless energy keeps saying,
‘Not this, something else.”
It keeps us looking for an escape,
A return to something called ‘normal.’”
The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching by William and Nancy Martin
Not this. Something else. This is referred to as the beginning of the “suffering cycle.”
So, are we habitually and restlessly distracting ourselves from “this,” looking for an escape to something normal or better? Can we notice whether this is true without making a problem out of it? Can we understand when and how this causes suffering?
It’s not about finding fault.
Attention is especially vulnerable to patterns of distraction when we believe things
unbearable, unpleasant, or underwhelming. And yet, according to The Caregiver’s Tao Te Ching,
“… we do have another choice. We can [allow] this unsettled energy … the sensations will peak and then ebb away. We do not need to make ourselves calm. Everything quiets down on its own.”
With mindfulness comes choice. Kind awareness sees clearly. It brings us home to our
intention, and allows things just as they are, staying present as distractions, restless energy, or underlying stories and emotions arise and pass away. There is curiosity and deeper knowing — am I looking for an escape? Is what I am believing true? What needs my attention?
From this space can come a conscious choice. And perhaps with conscious choice there can be an understanding that, “Knowing what to do is not as important as knowing when to stop doing it,” to quote again from The Caregiver’s Tao.