Day 3: Is the Distracted Mind a Spiritual Liability?

Welcome to Day Three of my new blog series on “accepting the world.” If this sounds slightly scandalous (aren’t we Christians supposed to reject the world?), catch up with this intro post. In that post, I explain what Ivan Ilyin means when he says we must accept the world as God’s gift before we can begin the difficult and necessary process of transforming the world, with God’s help, through the medium of culture.

Yesterday, I was moved to read Lynnette Horner’s own struggle with the need for digital minimalism, and the uncomfortable truths she found out about herself after a month-long digital fast. She mentioned something in her wonderful post that I’ve been struggling with myself for a while:

Mindless fluff takes up space in my heart and soul. It’s not poisonous, but it does not encourage my growth in Christ either. I’m not saying that interesting magazine articles, videos of rescued puppies, and fascinating historical novels are harmful. God’s creation is amazing, and humans created in His image produce many wonderful things worth contemplating and enjoying. He has given us gifts and talents, and our hobbies and interests can enrich our lives. There is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying a football game or relaxing with a magazine full of home decorating ideas. But I have come to realize that in my own habits, the fluffy “neutral” stuff crowds out the good and eternal.

Distracted mindlessness or focused attention?

Instead of being distracted by the mindless fluff, the Holy Fathers exhort us to practice attentiveness, both in prayer and in our daily lives. Here’s an example from volume 3 of St. Ignatius Brianchaninov’s collected works, which I’m translating right now:

Plant love for You in my heart, so that I will no longer be parted from You, no longer be distracted by irresistible attraction to foul sin. Give me Your peace, so that it may preserve my soul in unbreakable calm, preventing my thoughts from running about the entire cosmos without any purpose, to my own detriment, to my own confusion.

But what about “idle time”?

I’ve always read such passages as the one above with nary a passing glance, briefly contemplating my own uselessness in this and vowing to do better in the future. But recently, I’ve come across a thorny problem that I would like to ask all of you to help me with.

More and more, I’m reading about research that suggests that our brains need idle time for pattern-formation and for creative synthesis. You can find all kinds of examples of this sort of thing on the internet. Here’s one:

Mental idle time, meanwhile, seems to facilitate creativity and problem-solving. “Our research has found that mind-wandering may foster a particular kind of productivity,” says Jonathan Schooler, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of California, Santa Barbara who has studied mind-wandering extensively. He says overcoming impasses—including what he calls “a-ha!” moments—often happen when people’s minds are free to roam.

I have gone on record with my unwillingness to give scientific research (which sometimes, and fallaciously, claims infallibility) the sheen of “ultimate truth.” That being said, there does seem to be an awful lot of empirical evidence to suggest that idle time for the brain is helpful. And my own experience (as bad of an indicator as that might be) proves that simply turning my always-analyzing brain off for a little while taking a shower or a walk often produces breakthroughs in my work. In fact, I wrote about one of them yesterday.

So what I am missing? Is idle time for the brain not the same thing as inattentiveness? Or is modern man so unnaturally cerebral that we need a new kind of approach to the question of the focused mind and heart?

A Possible Answer

I guess the immediate answer that comes to mind is that idle time need not be distracted time. Given time, the mind seeks its own pattern  s and finds them randomly. But is there a way of focusing that process and maximizing idle time to make it simultaneously creatively productive and spiritually enriching?

St. Ignatius may provide us with a tangential answer, also from his third volume:

Because of this great benefit conferred by short, attentive, focused prayer, the Holy Church recommends to its children to learn some kind of short prayer, such as the Jesus Prayer. Whoever teaches himself to pray thus has a ready prayer in any place, at any time. When he travels, when he eats, he can cry out to God. When he cannot pray aloud, he can pray with his mind. In this sense, this prayer is obviously useful. When one works, it is very easy to lose the meaning or order of long prayers; but a short prayer is always preserved whole. Even if you leave it behind for a short time, you can return to it again without any difficulty. Even during the church services, it is useful to repeat a short prayer in your spiritual cell; it not only doesn’t hinder your attentiveness to the prayers read and sung in church, but it helps instead to attend to them more fully, because it prevents the mind from scattering.

I admit I may be extrapolating, but I think if we synthesize the insights from the recent studies on “idle time” and this age-old teaching concerning praying without ceasing, we may uncover a real gem. Yes, idle time is absolutely necessary, especially for us who have become lost in the babble of our own constant thoughts. But idle time is only enhanced by the practice of the Jesus prayer.

And what if we have that flash of insight during idle time, enhanced by the Jesus prayer. Rather than being a cause for concern, as though we were losing our attentiveness at prayer, St. Ignatius’ counsel seems to suggest that the prayer itself may be responsible for more quickly gathered patterns, more profound moments of “A-ha!”

What do all you think about this? Does anyone have any practical experiences to offer about this process?

(Catch up on Day One and Day Two of this series).

12 comments:

    1. I always used to think that if you’re thinking of anything other than the Jesus Prayer while praying, then it “doesn’t count.” But that doesn’t seem to be what the Fathers say. Glad to hear about your moment of synthesis!

  1. I find going for a walk in the park with my dog always yields different insights that are useful or interesting at the least. I leave my phone behind. The wife and kids will ok for an hour. There’s no ‘always impending but never quite happening catastrophe’ happening in the imminent future. On weekends, we try to all go together.

    I’ve cut out all forms of social media, no Facebook, Twitter, tumbler, Instagram or whatever. I have no apps on my phone that allow me a quick peek at stuff. It’s been about 4 years now and I can’t see ever reintroducing those things to my life. I even unplug the WiFi at night for restful sleep (there’s a ton of literature on EMF radiation and it’s effects on people, pets and plants)

    All this together with plenty of exercise and driving in quiet every now and again helps the overall quest for analogue experiences with other humans. Even during the week there is a strict no tv/streaming service rule with the kids. And yes, sometimes it would be so so much easier to just let them watch something but that’s giving ground in a war where consumerism and modernity are taking no prisoners ( I mean, friggin VR headsets!?! )

    I’ve found that even if my prayer feels dry, I can’t at least get to that place of quiet to do it. I don’t have to fight with myself for stillness or distraction. I do have a host of other demons I fight; rage, impatience, lust, envy. The whole gang. Sometimes I do ok. Sometimes I lose. But I know that consciously trying for the analogue helps me do ok more times than I would otherwise. And once in a while, when prayer catches fire, it feels like a wonderful gift in this quiet war.

  2. Horner is correct in saying that we fill our mind with mindless “fluff.” I know I’ve been guilty of pushing away poisonous thoughts with fluff, but that doesn’t help in the long run. It’s does us no good if we are trying to avoid evil and vice without attempting to cultivate that which is good and virtuous as well.

    One of the biggest difficulties for me during the week is my drive to church. I live an hour away from where I attend and the drive can get very taxing. I used to just listen to my normal music when I drove to church, but I soon realized that there was something dissonant about listening to rock music on the way to celebrate the Divine Liturgy. Not that rock music is bad in and of itself, but if you are spending your morning preparing yourself both for the Liturgy and receiving the Eucharist, it is something that is deeply counterproductive. I have tried things like listening to pre communion prayers, listening to sermons, or putting church music on. However, they’ve turned out to be counterproductive since they either tend to distract me or go in one ear and out the other. I recently began thinking about driving to church being a time of prayerful contemplation about the time of the year as well as the week before and week coming up. Reading this post has encouraged me to pursue that!

    What St. Ignatius says about short and focused prayers reminds me a lot of what Fr. Abbott Tryphon described as “bullet prayers.” I think for some of us who come from a more evangelical background, we tend to shy away from those kind of prayers because the “vain repetitions” argument echoes in our mind, even though we don’t believe it. Yet when looking back, when I am praying without a prayer book, its the short bullet prayers that keep me praying and attentive while the long, improvised prayers fade into nothing but distraction.

  3. I also really appreciated Lynette’s blog. Very salient.

    I think “idle time” is a misleading term because of the negative connotations of the word “idle” in English. Could it be that what you’re looking for is the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being’? Our culture is heavily weighted towards the ‘doing’— so much so that we have to learn how to think about ‘being’ without using ‘doing’ verbs… “What do I need to do in order to accomplish this being thing?” Or at least, that’s how my thought process needed to evolve, lol. It *is* funny, isn’t it? But the very first prerequisite for ‘being’ is silence, and there you have it— diagnosis and prescription in one package.

    I think the distinction began to crystallize for me after I read Evdokimov, and also maybe Helen Luke? I’m sure there are many examples once you know what you’re looking for. 🙂

  4. These comments give such food for thought! I think I subconsciously consume “fluffy” content to avoid the stillness and quiet of being alone with myself and with God. I remember reading somewhere (I’m sorry I can’t find the reference) that Albert Einstein spent much of his childhood watching ants and watching the clouds. Clearly that “idle” time of observing and reflecting worked out well for him. LOL

  5. I am a reader so it is hard to be distracted from the prayers, thankfully. Often because I have to remain so focused on the prayers, connections come very quickly throughout the service. I actually have post it’s at the chanter stand to make notes about reading and such, which come in handy when an idea pops up. ☺️

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