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Practicing Presence Amid On-Demand Distraction

When was the last time you did something and didn’t try to upgrade the task by layering another activity on top of it?
Practicing Presence Amid On-Demand Distraction

Art: Jessica Keiko Mitsumasu ©

When was the last time you did something and didn’t try to upgrade the task by layering another activity on top of it? I’m talking about propping a screen up in front of the sink. Or maybe staring at a smaller screen during a multi-million dollar feature film created by hundreds (if not thousands) of people. Taking a walk? Cue up that podcast. Know what would improve this recipe? A sitcom!

These common practices get framed as adding value, as redeeming the time. But a more honest accounting of why we do this is necessary because as much as we love to believe we’re optimizing ourselves, the truth is many of us are afraid.

Silence is scary.

A wandering mind is hard to find

In his 2017 book Disruptive Witness, Alan Noble describes how “human beings have a tremendous capacity to distract ourselves from ourselves.” This capacity isn’t new, but the character of the distractions available in 2021 is very different from those of the year 221. People distract themselves because self-reflection inevitably demands self-criticism, which might require us to change. So, while distraction isn’t a new phenomenon, the modes of distraction available to us are unprecedented.

“We are still obsessed with money, reputation, and honor, but we now have vast systems devoted to accommodating our obsessions. The ability of retina screens, high-speed internet, notifications, advertising, video, and music to capture and retain our attention is far, far beyond the distractions a fourth-century (B.C.) Athenian would have experienced. Even on a physiological level, these devices, images, and sounds have been carefully designed to manipulate our behavior. That is the change which makes such a tremendous difference.”

My goal here is not to argue for replacing all our distractions with deep self-reflection. Some distractions are better than others, of course, but as important as refusing the most manipulative distractions of the digital age is, more important is freeing ourselves from the dislocating effects of persistent distraction. Silence is uncomfortable, but it’s also restorative. The same isn’t true of the endless inputs of our digital distractions, which seek to flood the mind with so much signal it becomes indistinguishable from noise.

When this happens, what’s lost is not the ability to give the minimum focus required to complete mundane or uninteresting tasks but to be fully present in them.

Humans need productivity and presence

I recently read the letters of Brother Lawrence, a 17th Century French monk, in which he explores what it means to practice the presence of God. In true monkish fashion, Brother Lawrence recommends meditation. Contrary to today’s popular forms of meditation, Brother Lawrence isn’t suggesting that we empty our minds. Instead, his goal is to draw closer to God by performing all activities with purpose. Specifically, he is doing “all things for the glory of God,” as the biblical saying goes. Brother Lawrence isn’t just doing the dishes for God. He is also doing them with God. Believing God to be present and attentive, Brother Lawrence orders his life around attending to God, whether in prayer and spiritual exercise or the unglamorous demands of daily life. On the surface, this could seem like a monastic brand of mindfulness, but there is a distinction. Popular forms of mindfulness meditation encourage “a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment,” usually to reduce stress. By contrast, Brother Lawrence’s practice of presence holds the possibility of input from within (and outside) ourselves, the very judgment that mindfulness meditation explicitly avoids.

Fresh off my reading of Brother Lawrence, I made some bread. With 10 minutes of kneading by hand ahead of me, I opted not to reach for the old iPad I ostensibly keep in the kitchen for easy access to recipes (but in reality, I use to watch sitcoms). Instead, I look at my dough. But I didn’t just look at it. I thought about it and let my mind wander. I counted the folds. I asked God to work his will in me, in my life. I considered what I would spread on the bread and how strawberries have no right to taste so good in so many forms — and yet they do. For long stretches, I simply occupied myself with the feeling of the dough on my hands and the rhythm of kneading. And then, a thought: Was I forming a loaf, or being formed myself?

It was work, but it was also strangely restful.

We would all benefit by seeing the persistent demands of being alive — eating, cleaning, and preparing — as moments of potential presence and reflection instead of trying to endlessly “add value” to these tasks. Why should a smartwatch remind us to take time to breathe when there are dishes and dough to be tended? These are natural opportunities for restful reflection, even if they are anything but idle moments. Attending fully, even to the most bothersome and “boring” activities, may well be the last oases in the trackless noise of our attention economy.