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Oct 24, 2023

Distraction and Its Discontents

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Stephen A. Gregg

Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas

Stephen A. Gregg is a monk of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, in Texas.

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Distraction and Its Discontents

Some Monastic Thoughts on Stretching the Soul

512Px The Distracted Reader 9461057090

The Distracted Reader, Rick&Brenda Beerhorst, 2013

We all feel distracted, continually dragged aside to other things. We are often too distracted even to pay attention to loved ones sitting right in front of us. How then can we hope to discern carefully our place in this world, and what we are called to be in God’s eyes?

One of the early lessons in the monastery involves the sin of curiosity, a lesson that sounds confusing enough, even to us in an academic and properly curious monastery, that we tend to use the Latin form for it, curiositas. The best English translation is “being nosy,” though that is metaphorical and is a bit silly. But for my own Cistercian tradition, wanting always to know what’s going on around the corner, what the other monks are doing, who’s walking by the window, what that guy is eating, what the odd noise over there is, not to speak of the boundless realm of news and comment one might feel the need to know, all this interest, for all its seeming innocence, seems a sign of having lost touch with the real goal of the moment and of the whole quest: to know yourself and seek God. We can’t afford to be among those who, St. Paul says, “walk in idleness, not busy at work, but busybodies” (see 2 Thessalonians 3:6–12). Full of action—walking, busy—but not getting anywhere. Distracted.

Attention and distraction are not easy to define. Although we might think of distraction as what comes from outside to draw us away from attention, the monastic notion of curiositas suggests that the tendency to succumb to the outer distraction arises from an inner distraction: a lack of contact with, or even a resigned frustration with, the real spiritual work. And then, that real attention the monks aim for is not merely for the sake of efficiency in tasks, though that is part of it. Attention is not simple mindfulness practice—the attentive observation, in stillness of judgment, of the arising and departing of mental states for the sake of attaining greater skillfulness of mind—though this sort of attention to self seems to be an important part of the quest. And again, attentiveness is as much a social grace as an academic skill (think of the attentive host) and the depth of its meaning seems to reach toward the perfection of the spiritual life in prayer. After all, how hard it can be to pay attention at the service, at prayer! This difficulty remains an important challenge for most religious people. We are religious, we believe, so why can’t we keep ourselves from getting distracted? In some way prayer configures itself simply as a form of attention rather than distraction. Yet, if we paid absolute attention to the mystery we celebrate when we serve in the presence of God, if we achieved perfect attention and really engaged with total fullness… would we even survive? The Lord tells Moses, “You shall not be able to see My face, for no human can see Me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Our distraction from the fullness of things might also just concern our being here in this world still. Thus, perhaps the problem of attention is not just about my cell phone; it is about our human condition as temporal and as fallen beings. Prayer in this life is not so much “paying attention” as continually and repeatedly returning to attention, a steady practice of turning back to that which matters most.

Of course we are drawn to other things—we are with friends having fun, but suddenly everyone at the table is busy texting. And yes, we should be somewhat ashamed of it. At the same time, isn’t our soul designed to pay attention to many things, to be drawn to interesting and delightful matters? Marking this capacity as central to his work, the poet Dante creates a dialogue in the middle of his Purgatorio in which he is taught about God’s creation of the soul. The character Marco Lombardo speaks:

Issuing from His hands, the soul—on which
He thought with love before creating it—
is like a child who weeps and laughs in sport; 
that soul is simple, unaware; but since
a joyful Maker gave it motion, it
turns willingly to things that bring delight. (Purg. 16.85–90)

This soul, a child of God’s joy, rejoices in whatever comes toward it bringing delight, and we should occasionally pause to remember how beautiful this is—how young, agile, and terribly distractable the soul can be even as the body gets... less supple, to put it nicely. The problem, however, and the reason we regret and get embarrassed by our distractedness, is that we need our souls also to be mature; we don’t want to be distracted from our more serious, hopefully noble purposes by every triviality. Even if we wanted to be innocent little things forever, we can’t. Marco Lombardo goes on to lament that the world offers us so little formation, so inadequately curbs our bad curiosities and promotes our good delights, that our chances of mature success are slim. Dante knows how dangerous distraction can be: in the first canto of Inferno he finds himself at the edge of death, “in a dark wood,” but admits he cannot explain how he got there; “so full of sleep” was he “just at the point where [he] abandoned the true path” (Inf. 1.10–12).

So whatever distraction is exactly, we know it can be deadly, and whatever attention is, we know it deserves praise. St. Bernard of Clairvaux is praised in some early Cistercian texts because on one of his many peregrinations across Europe in defense of the unity of the Church, he walked past the entirety of Lake Geneva without noticing it; he had weighty matters in focus. This story recalls St. Benedict’s teaching on humility, a set of twelve steps toward attaining perfect love of God, the last of which says that the monk “manifests humility in his bearing no less than in his heart,” such that wherever he may be, whether walking, sitting, or standing, “his head must be bowed and his eyes cast down”; he keeps himself perfectly mindful of God’s judgment and constantly says to himself, with the tax collector of Luke 18:13, “Lord, I am a sinner, not worthy to look up to heaven” (Rule 7.62–66). In this, however, St. Benedict praises not an angry self-hatred but a radical attention and openness to receive. For St. Benedict is himself praised for having such an attitude and for receiving a marvelous vision. In the life of Benedict that Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604 CE) narrates, the elderly monk stood praying at his window in the depth of the night when a beam of light came in and he saw the whole world gathered into one within it, and the soul of a friend who had just died ascending from the world up into heaven in a fiery globe. As Gregory explains, the inner vision of the mind makes the soul “slacken” and expand: “It’s not that heaven and earth were contracted, but that the soul of the beholder was enlarged, rapt in God, so that it might see without difficulty that which is lower than God.”

Everything all at once: now that is a bold moment of attention—or the fulfillment of a long work of proper attention, all the more noteworthy considering how concrete and practical St. Benedict was in his life and in his Rule; his head did not float in the clouds. So how do we achieve this? How can we so train the little joy-child that is our soul that we are ready to really see what we need to see and not get dragged away by other things?

Wandering Mind

The truth is, there is no single practice to help us here. Dropping off social media, limiting “screen time”—these alone won’t do it. To fix a mind that wanders and train a soul that so eagerly delights, perhaps we will have to use an equally variable set of techniques and aims. A charming and informative new book, Jamie Kreiner’s The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us about Distraction (Liveright, 2023), considers the many ways in which Christian monks of the ancient days (about 400–900 CE) attempted and often failed to keep themselves from distraction; for them distraction was not merely a technical difficulty but a moral challenge. As Kreiner explores in her first chapters, monks have always established some level of separation from the world—e.g., moving out into the desert, severing family ties, abstaining from the possession of wealth. They set up regular schedules of work and prayer, maintain silence to some degree, and have an order of authority that provides correction and direction. They tame the body by asceticism in bathing, clothing, hair-cutting, sleeping, postures of prayer, sexual abstinence, eating. Many such practices could obviously be helpful, because they remove a lot of the worries and planning that can create distraction. However, any helpful practice can easily become a distraction itself. Total poverty means worrying even more about necessity, so maybe some possessions are important as a basis of life, but then one gets distracted in locating the boundary between enough and too much. And the practices can become distractingly competitive: this hermit bathes once a week, this one once a month, this one never (see p. 77 for the desert mother Silvania, who announces that for sixty years water has only touched her fingertips!), and the difference between them becomes the only thing they think about. It is an “ironic process”: by trying to avoid some thought, you end up making it even more distracting. The most fundamental question for early monks remains whether to live alone as a hermit or within a community. Community life is a great support for attention but, then again, every little thing can become a distraction: Are those people who sit at a café doing work less distracted with the bustle around them than they would be alone in a silent room? After all, how often have we isolated ourselves away from things to work on something—a paper, a book—only to find ourselves more distracted in the isolation?

Kreiner has crafted a wonderful study of distraction and of Christian monks’ attempts to maintain attention and their complaints about failing: “All I do is eat, sleep, drink, and be negligent,” writes John of Dalyatha, an eighth-century monk in what is now northern Iraq. The frightful joy of reading this book comes from realizing how hard even these heroes of attention had it, and how like us they can be. There simply is no one solution; we must keep trying to pay attention. After all, distraction is itself metamorphic. In one delightful story, Kreiner paraphrases from early in the life of Pachomius, the founder of Christian cenobitic life (monastic life lived in community), when the holy man foils a parade of distracting demons:

They turned into naked women and sat with him while he ate. They fell into formation, like soldiers, and marched back and forth, saluting Pachomius by name. They rumbled the walls of his dwelling. They tied a rope around a palm leaf and dragged it around on the ground like they were construction workers moving a boulder, heave-hoing and yelling in the hopes that he would look over and laugh (Kreiner, 5).

Isn’t it curious how the distraction develops in this story? First, lust—no surprise, though note it relates to food and confirms the importance of restraint in eating. Then the soldier temptation: Pachomius was a pagan soldier before he became a Christian monk and founder of large monastic “fortress-cities” in the Egyptian desert, so this is also a biographical temptation, a memory of the past. Then, straightforward noise and violence, the stress of life. But last of all (how clever!), the distraction of humor. The demons are reduced to child’s play, but somehow that innocent silliness proves the most dangerous—what harm is there to laugh a little? The story brilliantly boils down the nature of distraction and of victory over it.

We often blame technology for our distractedness, and Kreiner shows how this afflicted the ancient monks too. For them, though, the technology was the book, to which she dedicates her fourth chapter. St. Anthony the Great, the original Christian hermit, eschewed all use of books and simply lived from his memory of Scripture. But books could also be important tools for learning, obviously, for enabling the mind to make new connections. After all, as Kreiner observes, meditation was not about mere stillness, but about movement: “Minds that meditated were supposed to warm up, jump, stretch, hold tight. They made cognitive connections that felt like gathering flowers, concocting a medicine, or building something from salvage” (149). This ideal guided monks to illustrate their books in curious ways, adding all those figures and illuminations and complex designs that we might think of as distractions, but which were ways of calling attention to connections, guiding interpretation, and reminding the reader of the richness of meaning—think of those pages of the Lindisfarne Gospels, and what their beauty suggests about the riches of scripture. Of course, a good book could also become a good pillow, so discipline was necessary even in reading.

Besides well-made books, good stories too were essential. Much of the Christian monastic tradition is in the form of hagiography—stories about the holy women and men of the past and dialogues with them—because these striking stories are easy to remember and thus can help us fight distraction. Sometimes the memorable story is also slightly disturbing: Theodoret of Cyrrhus and the poet-theologian Jacob of Sarug (both in ancient Syria) report that the great St. Simeon, who is famous as a stylite (a monk who lives on an elevated pillar), stood for so long in prayer that one of his feet became “grossly infected” and, as the poetic homily explains, rather than stop for necessary help, Simeon just cuts off the bad foot and keeps praying on one foot. The story is not meant to teach a lesson about medical practice but to be a slightly freakish reminder of the importance of posture in prayer. You almost hear: “Remember how seriously Simeon took it! You can at least kneel a little or bow or sit up straight!” Kreiner explains that this tactic is part of the “visceral seeing” or “corporeal imagination” of late antiquity. One begins to wonder: is it not just technology that distracts us, but our lack of good stories? The new Simeon will not live on a pillar and cut off his foot; will it just be something about his phone?

Kreiner’s book moves toward more inward questions as it progresses, with its final chapters on the memory and the mind. We can acquire important lessons here, but principal among them is the simple recognition of how powerful our minds are and how, though often distracted and seemingly untamable, they remain within our conscious control. The benefit of the book lies not in finding a solution to distraction but in simply recognizing our capacity for inner control. As Kreiner points out, one of the best “metacognitive gestures” the monks used was to “imagine the mind corralling its thoughts back together” (173). John Climacus learned the strategy from a monk near Alexandria, Egypt, who explained his ability to concentrate in prayer thus: “It is my custom at the very start to gather my thoughts, my mind and my soul. I call to them and cry out, ‘Come! Let us worship and fall down’” before God (173). If the sheep can wander astray, they can also be called back—we are the shepherd within, and we want to concentrate on the fresh spring of water and good grass to nourish our thoughts. There are more violent images for this, of course. In his Rule, St. Benedict refers to a disturbingly violent Psalm verse (the end of Psalm 137) when he advises us, “As soon as wrongful thoughts come into our heart, dash them against Christ” (Rule 4.50; also Prologue 28). Early in my monastic life, I was counseled to remember that God is always with us and that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29), so if any distracting or disturbing thought or problem came to mind, rather than thinking more about it or worrying about dealing with it immediately, I could just toss the thought into the fire of God, which can purify or destroy anything I throw at it. Having that fire by my side has proved very helpful.

The monks keep their attention strong—to attain that expanded soul of St. Benedict—by returning as often as possible not just to their task or to their rule but to the mystery of God. Attention is our work, but it is also a work of attraction, of allowing ourselves to be drawn toward what matters. As Kreiner puts it in her conclusion, “Most fundamentally, to tackle distraction it was crucial to identify something worthy of total concentration” (195–196). Lovers, in the moments when they are truly together, simply won’t get distracted from each other, but what they see in each other is not a single fact to attend to but a rich abundance, layers of reality and response. Perhaps we are easily distracted today because technology rules our attention and also because we do not arrange our lives to keep ourselves near things that really matter. In order to pay attention, we need to find objects truly worthy of our attention, and this act of seeking should be a continuous, inquisitive application of our soul’s power of delight. After all, even in the best situation our mind will move from place to place; rather than resent this, we can embrace the agility. For me as a Catholic, the Rosary comes to mind: the prayer is structured as a series of “mysteries,” moments in the mission of Jesus Christ, around each of which we say a certain prayer (the Hail Mary) ten times. It is a highly repetitive practice—you need the beads to keep count—and the experience of it is one of continually reminding oneself, “Wait, which mystery am I on? Oh, yes, that one.” The prayer is a process of losing track and returning to it frequently. And perhaps that is the idea, rather than thinking I could pray it with total, unwavering attention. The back and forth of the mind’s losing hold and then regaining it is the essence of attention in this life. Rather than regret our lack of self-mastery, we should cultivate our desire to find what will truly be worthy of our attention. If we want to escape from our slavery to distraction, we must seek the mystery that attracts us most deeply, the “column of cloud” that does not budge by day and the “pillar of fire” that remains by night (Exodus 13:21–22).