What is the Price we are Paying for a Life of Distraction?

This blog is going to be about the topic of distraction. The most obvious thing to say about distraction is nearly all of us retreat to it in one form or another. Distraction can take on many shapes, to name some of the more popular — phone use, specifically email, messaging apps, social media use, TV watching, consumption of media, including the news, cleaning, endless life admin and list making, shopping, talking, worrying (yes worrying), drug use, drinking, eating, you can kind of see that nearly every act could be classed as distraction, although of course it isn’t always.

I believe that what differentiates activities that become distractions from the same activities which are not, is our intentions, conscious or unconscious of our engagement. Are we on autopilot or is there an active choice about whether or not to engage?

How many of us — myself included — fail to appreciate the tender moment between sleep and waking, when our dreams are still fresh and the sun is shining through the window by grabbing our phone and seeing what ‘important’ updates we need to fill our mind with to start the day?

It appears that what constitutes an addiction — “a disorder characterised by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences.” (1) is essentially what these distractions have become.

I came out of a week long retreat in February at the Dhanakosa Buddhist Centre in Scotland, it was a beautiful week where a lot of things blossomed for me, and I believe that one of the main reasons was the conscious unplugging from distractions, “minimising the input” as they put it. We did not use our phones, and we couldn’t even if we slipped in our temptations, because there was no signal! :)There was no media, in the form of TV, radio or news and we also had periods of silence so that the group remained conscious of distracting themselves through speech. We could read, but we were asked to be conscious of what we read and notice when it was being used for distraction.

We were literally encouraged to sit by the loch and do nothing but enjoy it’s changing beauty second to second. Something so simple as connecting to nature and nothing else felt seemingly wonderful but also unnatural to me, I was given the permission to do nothing and this was a bizarre feeling.

So what are we distracting ourselves from?

In short the present moment and ourselves within it.

We are distracting ourselves from the pain and discomfort of being in the here and now with feelings, thoughts, physical and emotional experiences which we have deemed too painful, not worthy or not good enough to be with.

Or we think the answer to the pleasure lies in another distant experience. This simple fact seems almost trite in its conclusion given the massive trend of mindfulness right now, but even though it is often said, it is this simple fact that lies at the heart of our constant sense of dissatisfaction, anxiety, apathy and craving for more — the usual more — more money, status, recognition, power, stuff, experiences, validation etc. It has never been truer that all this keeping up, is getting us down! The ‘hungry ghost’ imagery of the Buddhist tradition sums this up, the beings with massive bellies, but really small mouths and necks, the beings that can never be satiated.

With the rise of the digital age we have literally become experts at using every tool possible to take us away from the present and ourselves within it. Activities that can make up a distraction are not bad in and of themselves. But in this blog I am trying to draw awareness to the high price we are paying in exchange for a life of distraction.

I’m not just talking about a lack of presence during the ‘special’ experiences such as dining with our loved ones and being on our phone, being on holiday and taking selfies or going to a gig and watching the whole thing through our phones to show to someone who’s not even present. I’m also talking about the distraction from supposedly mundane moments, the simple ones, like making a cup of coffee, travelling to work, doing the laundry. As I won’t forget the retreat leader saying in his wonderful Scottish accent “washing the dishes, are the real goodies”.

This might sound ridiculous, and overly romanticised, but when you start to make your life more quiet, start paying attention, start committing to whatever is in front of you and nothing else, you will see for yourself how rich these little things can be.

In that week at the retreat, everything around me became more poignant. My senses, my surroundings, the conversations I did have, my feelings, my sense of expression and creativity. There was a precious relationship to them which had become muddy through the experience of the consistent wandering mind and multi-tasking.

I want to stress that we don’t need to beat ourselves up for living in this way, after all our society encourages us to engage with our world like this, and we have been told that this is THE way from childhood. The gentle unfurling of our hand from all of this clinging to distractions will not happen overnight! It will take time, a long time, but even by taking a little step I have found that it is possible to quite quickly experience the benefits. I’ve listed some small things to try below!

I came back from the retreat with a sense of anxiety, how was I going to incorporate what I had experienced and learnt into a life in London? I became quite precious about ‘my inputs’. The truth is it’s not going to be easy, it never will be, it’s one thing to be in an environment that actively encourages this way of being in the middle of nowhere and it is quite another to go against the grain of the speed that the modern world appears to continuously demand.

Having said this, I also came back with a clarity of mind to start somewhere and to start small by simplifying my life, making distraction that little bit harder and to start taking back some of my presence, little by little, habit by habit.

Below are some small things you could try to start loosening the grip…

  • Turn off the notifications on your phone for 24 hours
  • Have a digital detox for a day — no phone, TV, Netflix, emails
  • Spend the day outside without your phone
  • Choose one mundane activity you have to do, such as washing the dishes and try to be fully present with the physical experience
  • Go for a long walk and try to stay conscious of your speed, slowing down your walk
  • Spend half an hour with a tree, or another thing in nature and do nothing else
  • Experience what it’s like to really like to be present and listen to a friend
  • Meditate

If this blog has resonated with you please let me know.

Sources1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Addiction

Originally published at www.vanessalye.com on March 9, 2019.

Writer on psychology, philosophy, spirituality, art and creativity.