Most of us are afflicted more often than we'd like with what often is called "monkey mind."
Meaning, our attention is prone to flitting around from this to that to whatever, sort of like monkeys swinging from branch to branch in a seemingly aimless fashion.
But why is monkey mind a bad thing? Monkeys seem to have a good time in trees. Why are we humans so concerned about controlling our attention?
That's one of the themes in an article by Casey Cep in the January 30, 2023 issue of The New Yorker, Eat, Pray, Concentrate. The online version is titled What Monks Can Teach Us About Paying Attention: Lessons from a centuries-long war against distraction.
Download What Monks Can Teach Us About Paying Attention | The New Yorker
This is a book review of Jamie Kreiner's "The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction."
One thing they tell us is that we can't blame our own wandering mind on the internet, smartphones, television, digital games, or the other culprits we in the 21st century summon as reasons for our inability to focus.
Because back in the middle ages books were viewed with suspicion by many monks.
Although books are rarely associated with distraction today, desperate as we are to escape our screens, they were objects of concern in early monastic circles—diversions that might need to be regulated as carefully as sexual urges. Monks hemmed and hawed about when and where and for how long it was appropriate to read.
In the fourth century, Evagrius Ponticus, himself an avid reader, described a common scene in the monasteries where he lived in Jerusalem and the Nile Delta: a monk who was supposed to be reading “yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and again goes back to read for a while; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings, finds fault with the writing and the ornamentation. Later, he closes the book and puts it under his head and falls asleep.”
Evagrius had a name for this inability to focus—acedia—and scholars now variously define it as depression (the so-called noonday demon) or spiritual ennui (a kind of sloth). Acedia wasn’t caused by books, exactly, since a monk could suffer from it even without reading, but the book was initially as suspect a technology as the smartphone is today.
For me the most interesting part of the article was the end, which is a discussion of what the monks feared being distracted from.
Such careful study of the mind yielded gorgeous writing about it, and Kreiner collects centuries’ worth of metaphors for concentration (fish swimming peaceably in the depths, helmsmen steering a ship through storms, potters perfecting their ware, hens sitting atop their eggs) and just as many metaphors for distraction (mice taking over your home, flies swarming your face, hair poking you in the eyes, horses breaking out of your barn).
These earthy, analog metaphors, though, betray the centuries between us and the monks who wrote them. For all that “The Wandering Mind” helps to collapse the differences between their world and ours, it also illuminates one very profound distinction. We inherited the monkish obsession with attention, and even inherited their moral judgments about the capacity, or failure, to concentrate. But most of us did not inherit their clarity about what is worthy of our concentration.
Medieval monks shared a common cosmology that depended on their attention. Justinian the Great claimed that if monks lived holy lives they could bring God’s favor upon the whole of the Byzantine Empire, and the prayers of Simeon Stylites were said to be like support beams, holding up all of creation. “Distraction was not just a personal problem, they knew; it was part of the warp of the world,” Kreiner writes. “Attention would not have been morally necessary, would not have been the objective of their culture of conflict and control, were it not for the fact that it centered on the divine order.”
Most people today, me included certainly, don't believe that their attention is necessary to bring God's favor upon their chosen religion and those who follow that faith. So the question becomes, what is deserving of our attention?
Perhaps that is why so many of us have half-done tasks on our to-do lists and half-read books on our bedside tables, scroll through Instagram while simultaneously semi-watching Netflix, and swipe between apps and tabs endlessly, from when we first open our eyes until we finally fall asleep.
One uncomfortable explanation for why so many aspects of modern life corrode our attention is that they do not merit it. The problem for those of us who don’t live in monasteries but hope to make good use of our days is figuring out what might.
That is the real contribution of “The Wandering Mind”: it moves beyond the question of why the mind wanders to the more difficult, more beautiful question of where it should rest.
Everyone has to answer that question for themselves. My answer is quite simple: by and large, my attention should be focused on whatever my body is doing.
Right now I'm sitting in a chair in front of my MacBook Pro, composing this blog post. For about 35 minutes my mind has been focused on what my body is doing, pressing keys on my laptop's keyboard that form words and paragraphs.
Yes, a few minutes ago I got up, went to the kitchen, and ate a cookie. Once that minor distraction was over, I went back to finishing this post.
This is the essence of mindfulness, the way I've come to understand it. Paying attention to what our bodily senses are experiencing; keeping mind and body in sync; keeping in touch with the physical reality we're part of at any given moment.
When I'm lying in bed, heading off to sleep, I try to keep my mind focused on sleepy things. When I'm in my Tai Chi class, doing a form with my classmates, I try to keep my mind focused on my body's movements.
So unlike medieval monks, I don't consider that there's any one thing most deserving of my attention. That depends on the situation. When I'm watching TV, or scrolling through my Twitter feed, what's on a large or small screen is what I try to keep my attention on.
And because I've been guilty of not wholeheartedly listening to my wife and friends when they have something to say to me, I especially try not to be distracted when we're having a conversation. I could definitely do better on this front, but I think I'm making some progress on being a better listener.