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.
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?