How much time during the course of your day do you feel is spent distracting yourself from yourself? I certainly am not bad at this. Through reading, over-thinking, eating, watching films, going places, listening to music and working I have found several enjoyable ways of distracting myself from myself. If left unchecked, I can actually be a master of self-distraction.
I have found that there is a very simple way to find out just how much you distract yourself from yourself. All you need to do is sit down and look out a window.
Notice the colors, the light, the shadows, the life going on outside and the the sounds. See if you can keep your attention on these things for longer than a minute or two. If you are someone who spends a lot of time distracting yourself from yourself, you might notice that after a minute or two just looking out a window will start to feel very hard. You might notice a strong impulse to do something else. To pick up your cell phone (or what I prefer to can a mini-computer), to find that book that you are reading and keep reading, to clean the room you are sitting in, to go do the dishes, to return phone calls and/or check your emails. You might also notice that you will be thinking about your parents, a friend, your kids, your failures, your regrets, your ambitions and all kinds of other things. As soon as you start to feel like you are coming back into yourself you will probably feel like doing something else. But see if you can just sit there and begin to find what T.S. Elliot called “the still point of the turning world.”
The writer Franz Kafka once wrote, “You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen. Simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.” In our frenetic and highly competitive era where everyone is busy pushing back their fears, worries, uncertainties, loneliness and self doubts- few of us have probably experienced the world rolling at our feet in ecstasy for more than a few minutes every month or so. Despite all we do, we seem unable to align our doing and our being with our deepest yearnings for peace and contentment.
After five minutes of just sitting and looking out a window the urge to get up and do something might feel over-powering. After all there is so much to get done! Children to attend to, future events to be worried about, floors to be cleaned, plants to be watered, deadlines to meet, money to be earned and spent. But see if you can just keep yourself where you are at. See if you can just stay with your life as it is in the moment- looking out a window and watching. You might notice a kind of calm coming over you and if you are lucky you will begin to realize that our lives work is here in this moment. It is in noticing and paying attention to the sounds that we hear, the things that we see, our inhalation and exhalation, our body sitting on a couch.
Sure there is work to be done in the world. But like the writer Philip Simmons wrote, “Our work denies our doom.” We often keep ourselves distracted from ourselves because this allows us to distract ourselves from the fundamental fact of life- everything is impermanent, including you and everyone you love. This fear is at the root of what keeps us running but the irony is that the more we allow ourselves to be connected with the impermanence of all things, the more we are able to open our hearts and feel a deeper sense of connection to the world around and within us. The more we try and push away the impermanence, the more disconnected and distracted we become. And at some point, either today or in fifty years, we all will get a first hand experience of just how impermanent everything is.
So put away your phone, close the book that you are reading, stop planning or immersing yourself in your emotional drama. Just sit down on your couch or chair and look out a window. Spend ten or fifteen or thirty minutes doing this. Do it every single day if you can. Don’t do anything. Just watch. Become present with your life as it is. Sit with it. Silently. Don’t think too much about any one thing. See what happens once you find your still point.