Wandering Minds


How I love your law! It is my meditation all day. 
—Psalm 119:97

In 2008, the UK financial firm Lloyds TSB released the results of a study on attention spans. The results showed that the average attention span had reduced over the previous decade. Around 1998, the average attention span was twelve minutes in length. The 2008 study indicated it had been reduced to just five minutes.

Of the 1,000 people surveyed, 25% said they regularly forgot the names of close friends or relatives, and 7% even admitted to momentarily forgetting their own birthdays. Pots and pans were forgotten on the stove. An estimated £1.6 billion (approximately $2.67 billion) of damage was caused by lack of concentration.

But those over age 50 were able to concentrate for longer periods than younger people. This suggested that busy lifestyles and modern technology, rather than old age, were to blame for mental decline. The fact that this study is over ten years old (as of this writing) suggests that those age 60 and younger are now similarly affected.

Those of us immersed in technology for our work and play understand this study all too well. We click through an endless stream of Internet links. We multitask in numerous media. We may write a daily blog. We check our email constantly. And we text friends, co-workers and others regularly throughout the day. Neuroscience studies now show that the mental pathways of our brains are being rewired accordingly so that our capacity for sustained attention is decreasing. And while we may complain about our technology, how complicated it makes life and how frustrating it is, we still use it all.

The truth is that we enjoy our technological gluttony. It is all so stimulating and interesting. But the Internet culture is only a surface issue. Our problem is something far more fundamental and can be summed up in one word: distraction. Distraction is the primary spiritual problem in our day. Of course, the Internet did not cause this problem. People were distracted long before it came along.

The fact that our schedules are piled high and we are constantly bombarded by multiple stimuli only betrays that we have succumbed to the modern mania that keeps us perpetually distracted. The moment we seek to enter the creative silences of meditative prayer, each demand screams for our attention. As author Richard J. Foster describes it, we have noisy hearts. But how do we quiet the noise? What can we do to expel the spirit of distraction? Here are some small beginnings.

1. The inner chatter we experience the moment we try to be still add listen to the Lord no doubt tells us something about our own distractedness. Sometimes we need to gently but firmly speak the word of peace to our racing mind and so instruct it into a more disciplined way.

2. During prayer, keep a "things to do" pad handy and jot down the tasks that are vying for your attention until they have all surfaced. Then the buzzing thoughts can settle down and you can be still.

3. If one particular matter seems to be repeatedly intruding into your prayer, you may want to ask of the Lord if the intrusion has something to teach you. That is, befriend the intruder by making it the object of your prayer.

4. Practice a sabbath time of all electronic media before your time of prayer. We must acknowledge that a total fasting of technology during our prayer time might be a challenge in our multitasking world. For example, while we might use our smart phones for calls, email and texting, we might also use them for reading prayer requests, reading our Bible and writing in our prayer journal, all at the same time! In this situation, you might try putting your phone in "airplane mode" to prevent the distraction of new calls, new emails and new texts. Beyond your time of prayer, you might try a fast from Internet gadgetry for one hour a day, one day a week, one week a year. See if that helps to calm the distraction.

5. A selective reading of poetry can be especially helpful in settling our minds in three ways. First, poetry startles us with its economy of words and beauty of language. Words carefully chosen and beautifully written have a way of slowing us down and focusing our attention on essential matters. Second, we may not understand what the poet is saying on the first read. This forces us to stop, go back and read the words again and again. If we are patient, our racing mind will slowly become present to the poem. A poem most often has a double meaning and it takes us a little while to move past the surface subject of the poem to the deeper issue the poet is after. As we begin to understand the poem, our racing mind calms down considerably. Third, the mind is often captured by the metaphor if a poem. Foster recommends for our consideration the works of the following three poets: John Donne, George Herbert, and Robert Siegel.

6. Be patient with yourself. You did not develop a noisy heart overnight. And it will take time and patience for you to learn a single-hearted concentration.

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