Oct 27 2011

{Day 27} Vegging Out and other Habits of Distraction

Over the past month of considering contemplative living, I’ve invited you to reflect on your activities and start to make cause and effect connections. I would imagine that you’ve discovered that some activities encourage your intention to pay attention to the present moment, and some distract, escape, or numb you–heart, mind or spirit–to now.

Anything can be used as a distraction to contemplative attention. As I suggested in an earlier post, sometimes the present moment is simply too much and we have a desire to take shelter, to feel safe or “get our mind off” something. It’s an understandable response and often a self-protective skill.

Today, I’d like for you to consider that response without judgment.

When used occasionally, sheltering activities are often enjoyable and allow us to relax. But they can over time and practice, become habits of distraction. Then, whenever the troublesome feeling or weariness or need to escape arises, we distract ourselves. Rather than exploring, gently and patiently, what may be the cause of the unpleasant emotions or thoughts or physical feeling, we choose to focus attention elsewhere.  I have a theory that people who are drawn to contemplative living often face stronger temptations to escape the present moment.

Let me offer an example from my own life of how a common activity can easily become a distraction from the present moment.

I’ve always loved stories–I easily get caught up in them. I’m also an introvert. For me, screen media offers the enjoyment of adventure, people, places, ideas, and relationships, all from the safety of my own desk. I need only watch.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about a growing conviction of mine that screen media had encroached upon my ability to pay attention to reading, academic study, and people around me. I had given away my TV years ago, but found that the time I was spending via the internet, involved in the story lives of so many characters were taking a toll. I was no longer simply enjoying the experience, but using the screen stories to distract myself from dealing with my own life. At one point, I asked God about some of my struggles with living a contemplative life and his response was clearly, “Are you willing to do what it takes?”

What it took, initially, was a 40 day fast from all screen media. I told my dear friend Kimberlee and asked her to hold me accountable. For good measure, I put internet blocks on websites like Hulu and cancelled my Netflix account.

The first week was difficult, especially when I was tired. At one point, I found myself pacing my apartment, wanting to escape the silence, wanting desperately to get lost in a story.

What God showed me is that these stories were only a substitute to deeply paying attention to my own.

By the second week, I found my thinking clearer and the sense of resistance that I’d always felt, but could never figure out its cause, disappeared. Everything seemed more real. I had more mental and emotional energy.

Rather than getting lost in a story, I sat with what I was feeling or thinking. Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

Or I simply rested, since most often the desire to watch a show or movie came when I was weary.

After the initial 40 days, I completed two more 40 day periods.  It didn’t become a permanent change in my life, but I did learn to stay in the moment more often than escaping. I’m currently allowing myself some screen media each week, but very aware that (for me) it is just shy of becoming a distracting activity again. I will most likely be doing another fast for the 40 days of (Celtic) Advent.

What is important about paying attention to our distractions is that, while anything can become a distraction, nothing really is. Just by paying attention to the coping mechanisms you’re using, just by noticing, “Oh, I check my email when I’m craving human interaction,” or “I click over to Facebook when my work starts to bore me,” transforms the distraction into food for contemplative reflection.

Sit with the craving. Sit with the boredom. Let it share its wisdom. Let God meet you exactly where you are.

While the distraction can take you out of the present moment, paying attention to the distraction (and the vulnerability it is masking) brings you right back in.

And, whenever we begin to pay attention, we can asked the question, “Where is God with me right now?”

Practice: You probably already have some ideas about an activity that has become a distraction for you–TV, movies, internet, social network, exercise, shopping, cell phone use, work, a relationship, the list could hold anything.

Choose the one that you are most likely to do when you are tired–the “vegging out” activity.

I invite you to let it go for a time. Instead, sit with your weariness, frustration, sadness, loneliness, whatever it is you’re wanting to leave behind.  Listen to it, don’t leave.

Bring how you are feeling into your conversation with God.


Oct 25 2010

40 Days

“The wind is blowing away the leaves.  I can see more of the bus barn, a field of yellow, and trucks like little toys coming and going.  They must use the parking lot to practice backing up because the semi’s do it over and over, the beep-beep warning a distant refrain under John Dowland lute music on Pandora.  If not for practice, then it must be a window into a level of transit hell where truck drivers must park exactly between the lines, and do it over and over till they get it right. As I watch yet another attempt, the fireplace rumbles and puffs, adding a soft percussive line, and occasionally a wind gust flutes across the chimney, blowing a deep under note.”

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On October 10th, I embarked on a 40 day experiment: no TV shows or movies.

While my media ingestion habits were not extreme, I found that the time I spent was affecting time in other activities: reading books, writing, engaging in conversation.  Passively watching media was an easy way to fill time when I was tired or when I didn’t know exactly what else to do.  And, more troubling, I suspected that screen media was encroaching on my enjoyment of reading and stealing time from things I delight in doing, simply because watching pre-packaged stories requires much less effort.

Honestly, even with all the good reasons for limiting screen media, and new research about media and learning, the main reason I pulled the plug was a challenge God put to me:

“How badly do you want this contemplative life, Susan? Are you will to put forth the effort?”

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“Exactly what did you have in mind, God?”

I’ve been trying to craft a life that is conducive to praying while doing sustained academic reflection, and then sharing the fruit of that reflection in intensive writing.  While that has involved setting up a daily schedule and activities, I hadn’t dealt with reality of extended times of solitude yet. The biggest surprise for this introvert girl: long periods of unscheduled openness and being alone makes me twitch!

DSC_0078As the rhythm has settled in, I’ve found I love the idea of such a life, fear the reality of it, and fail at it daily.  Thus, I prayed, “Help God!” and God’s always-wise questions laid bare a number issues, TV being one of them.

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Gerald May, in Addiction and Grace, suggests that the way out of attachments is not to find a replacement attachment or addiction–something healthier, yet just as much an idol–but to sit in the spaciousness of what was once present, in all the scary vulnerable openness.

As the leaves fall, only bare branches remain.

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So I’ve been sitting with the spaciousness, rather than filling it. A few times I’ve walked, pacing laps around my apartment, clearly uncomfortable with the silence.  The desert monks from the 2nd century say, “Stay in your cell, and your cell will teach you everything.”

Two weeks in, the results are becoming noticeable.  I no longer feel resistance toward paying attention to reading and writing. I feel more present to life in general and simply more joyful.

My own imagination seems to be dusting off spiders and cobwebs, sputtering a bit on the dust from disuse, and helping me to not only engage my life, but helping me find words to describe life.

So today, in gratitude…

3-D life

Imagination

For words, and that they show up when I wait patiently and attentively

Rich conversations with friends about life, God, faith and love

Falling leaves

Helicopter seeds blown in the wind

Determined hummingbirds flying fiercely against the gusts

Joy

Homemade muffins

And an inquiring Stellar Jay…Ah! such amazing blue!

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holy experience


Jan 26 2010

Screen Life

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” And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”  Colossians 3:14-17

Today this verse brought conviction.

To do something in someone’s name is to have the authority of that person for action, but also to act on their behalf–actions that they themselves would do.  “Do everything” is quite explicit–everything I do each day, how I spend my time, is to be done with both a sense of Christ’s authority and on Christ’s behalf.

The still small voice has been gently suggesting over the past year for me to consider how much time I give to screen living–internet, social networking, and Hollywood media.

As I sought God for help discerning whether I am hearing his voice or my own driven perfectionism, the phrase came to mind: Guilt is a bad motivator for change, but a feeling of conviction is a good reason for repentance and prayer. The first puts all the power of change on me, the second puts me in partnership with God. It has helped to take my feeling of conviction to God and pray, rather than embark in my own strength on “10-steps-to-a-new-and-improved-Susan.”

I do not begrudge small doses of  quality entertainment (I have enjoyed excellent series like “Cranford” and “Emma”), but I can see that in my life, it can seep in through the cracks  of loneliness and promise a false sense of connection. And then an hour or hours later, what was gained?

Instead, God whispers:  Come to me, Susan.  Write, sing, pray, call a friend, send a letter, take a walk, take some photos, have a party.

Does this mean I give up all screen life?  No.  But it does mean that I want to prayerfully consider, with God’s help, alternatives and have them at the ready.

Romans 12:1 comes to mind.  “Take your everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life—and place it before God as an offering.”

God, I give you my time in front of any screen. Help me prune it so that it becomes life-giving and honors your Name.

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