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The Thrall & Detriment of Distraction: How the Focus of Meditation Can Help Us Show Up

But my brain, I realized, wasn’t just drifting. It was hungry. It was demanding to be fed the way the Net fed it—and the more it was fed, the hungrier it became… I wanted to beconnected.

—Nicholas Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

A reason to move through life quickly is to avoid the incessant white noise buzzing in our minds… the pressure, the pace, the onslaught of doing, doing and more doing; the irrepressible self-judgment and judgment of others; unpleasant feelings of anger, grief, uncertainty, doubt, fear, confusion, guilt and more; obsession over past mistakes and fear of future ones; swirling worst-case scenarios; and the inability to accept change and mortality. And when the fearsome space of unfilled silence creeps up and the dearth of activity disagreeably ensues, we reach for distraction to substitute for the peace we don’t know how to access, and perhaps assumed was futile. And the more we distract ourselves, the more insistent the internal din becomes, and the more elaborate our mechanisms for denial.  And the more we deny, the more identified we become with who we are not, ever more distanced from our authentic being and sincere, unfettered connection with others.

Cars, computers and the Internet were sold to us as solutions for us to get places faster, to accomplish tasks more quickly, to have all knowledge at our fingertips and liberate us from menial tasks so we might do what matters to us.  Instead, we have become slaves to maintaining our machines and the barrage of information and interaction from emails and texts, social media, and Google searches. Who has the time to feel?  What point is there to feeling if feeling feels so bad and boring?  What benefits could there possibly be in slowing down, getting quiet and asking questions of our mental din?

In this light, sitting down to voluntarily do nothing seems a ridiculous proposition.  In deciding to meditate, one agrees to put all else aside to be with oneself, deliberately turning away from the thrall and mental morass of distraction.  It is in the consistent commitment to turning away that we begin to realize how much distraction is not external but rather lives inside us.  Herein lies the hope and the true power meditation extends:  as we develop the skill to non-reactively observe the personal and egoic nature of our disturbing thoughts, we grow in understanding, empathy, courage and calm.

While popular science tells us that meditation lowers blood pressure, improves sleep and brain function, it would be foolhardy to conclude that it is a magic bullet, that it is easy or will deliver its benefits quickly.  Far from doing nothing, meditation is a deliberate act of letting go. When we are in the habit of resisting, judging and blaming–assured roads to suffering–letting go requires devotion and intention, willpower and faith.  Any worthwhile skill is cultivated through attention and practice and meditation is no different.  Meditation is actually self-guided mental training in which we learn to focus on the unfolding moment within ourselves, free from commentary or the input of others.

While we have naively trusted that the Internet and smart phones will make us feel more connected, we have instead lost connection with our sense of who we are and who we’re meant to be, diminished our ability to be informed by the voice of our soul rather than media, our society, our friends and family.  As we dart about in the distraction that material reality endlessly supplies, we lose the ability to appreciate the simple pleasure of breathing deeply, of feeling warm in winter or watching one more unrepeatable sunset.  A reason to move through life more slowly, to engender moments of inactivity and silence, is to relax our need to be other than we are, to understand what motivates us and to liberate energy to show up for our lives with presence and contentment.

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