Evanston RoundTable, Dec. 1, 2016
It’s getting harder and harder to stay focused on staying focused.
In the messy place that masquerades as our mind, the average attention span is measured in seconds, hijacked by the day’s overloaded calendar; the latest craziness from Washington, Springfield and City Hall; the vapidity of bloviating TV commentators, blog posters and (yes) columnists; and the ever-growing demands of social media.
This state of frenetic being is called “monkey mind,” and it is the chief affliction of our frequently over-burdened lives.
Not to cast aspersions on monkeys, but monkey mind is a Buddhist term that describes the inability to focus due to random, disconnected, and unproductive thinking. It is defined as “unsettled, restless, capricious, whimsical, fanciful, inconstant, confused, indecisive, and uncontrollable.”
Most everyone has heard of it, complains of it, and means to do something about it. Antidotes range from meditation to intoxication. They can be effective or not. But now comes word of a better way.
In a New York Times think piece a while back, a prominent neurosurgeon reported that the mind is sharper and more creative when it is more attentive. Big duh there.
But he went on to say, “When we are exploratory, we attend to things with a wide scope, curious and desiring to learn…We tend to be more exploratory when traveling to a new country.”
Of course. The new is exciting, interesting, and different. The old is dull, routine, and the same.
So maybe the answer to all the clutter, forgetfulness, and hysteria in our lives boils down to (excuse vast magnitudes of simplification) one word. Explore.
Treat every interaction, every conversation, every trip (whether to a new country, state, or city – or to the grocery store) as an opportunity to learn something exciting and new, to see the world afresh, to replicate the thrill of discovery you had as a young child.
This is no easy task and there is no ready formula. But the outlines of an approach are obvious. Be ever watchful in your environment. Challenge yourself to discover new things you’ve never known before about the place where you live and work or the person you’re with at this very moment. Be the reporter who digs up the latest and best angle to the same old story. It’s not as hard as you think.
Old-time newspaper editors used to send cub reporters onto the street with the assignment to bring back a great story. If your job depended on it, you could do it. Well, your life depends on it!
The world is vast, ever changing, and largely unknowable, but the drive to clarity begins with clearing the cobwebs of familiarity and replacing them with curiosity.
E.M. Forster famously said, “Only connect.” But we’re already way too connected in our overly socially mediated lives.
Instead, let’s make it, only explore.