The Art of Focus
The title for this inspirational piece is a straight steal from the editorial in the New York Times by David Brooks. Although I don’t always agree with Brooks, I find him a thoughtful, relevant writer. Much of what he says is so open to spiritual interpretation and development. Perhaps that is why I enjoy his challenges and contributions. So when I read his title, “the Art of Focus,” I ploughed into the editorial. I was not disappointed.
His opening sentence captivated me. He confesses, “Like everyone else, I am losing the attention war.” While Brooks is a bit younger than I am, he can remember the pre-social media days. He knows life before Facebook, Twitter, email, etc. Without putting a value judgment on these versions of social media, Brooks knows, as I do, that life was different then. I certainly don’t look back to those times as “the good old days.” In fact, I like the immediacy of interacting on Face Time with my distant kids. But with Brooks, I realize there are claims on my attention that did not used to be there.
Brooks continues to confess that he has heard the sermons against multitasking, but acknowledges that he is unrepentant! Then he nails it: “And, like everyone else, these sermons have had no effect. Many of us lead lives of distraction, unable to focus on what we know we should focus on.” I resonated with his sentiments. Then Brooks makes his clever move---and these are the reasons I like him. He says, in effect, since we are no good at making changes and learning, let’s turn to the experts, namely, children!
The rest of Brooks’ thinking is influenced by an interview of Andrew Phillips, a child psychologist, in The Paris Review. I would like to share the key points, because they seem so implicitly spiritual. The first point, in Brooks’ words, is “children need a secure social base” to pursue their intellectual development. When I think about this in terms of pursuing spiritual development, the same thing holds true. In my own development, a community is a huge asset.
We don’t need a community that dictates dogma to us. But we do need a community that provides a secure social base. We need a place that is loving---that teaches basic care, allows us to wander without direction or answers, and can be forgiving when we wander off the communal reservation. Again in our technologically driven world, such communities are not a given. Our options are to find one or to create one.
A second point Brooks make is that “children are propelled by desires so powerful that they can be frightening.” To this Brooks added a stunning quotation from Phillips. “Everybody is dealing with how much of their own alivenesss they can bear and how much they need to anesthetize themselves.” That struck me as profoundly spiritual. How much of my aliveness can I bear? What a question. And how much do I anesthetize? Clearly this is an arena that spirituality takes head on and without spirituality, probably we are avoiding any heads on confrontation. In fact, I have been with people who are dying while avoiding!
I really liked the next point: “children are not burdened by excessive self-consciousness.” That makes me realize I am not a child anymore! The upshot of this for children is this: “Their experience of life is more direct because they spend less time on interfering thoughts about themselves.” Again, this seems profoundly spiritual to me. One of the key aims of spirituality is to learn to get out of our own way. In the old days I would hear the phrase, “let go and let God.” While I don’t really like the phrasing, the idea is a good one.
So where does this leave us? I like Brooks’ ending. He talks about finding our “terrifying longing.” In the world of innovation where I spend some of my time, the language is to find your passion. Brooks’ final words can lead our final words. “The information universe tempts you with mildly pleasant but ultimately numbing diversions. The only way to stay fully alive is to dive down to your obsessions six fathoms deep. Down there it’s possible to make progress toward fulfilling your terrifying longing, which is the experience that produces the joy.”
I can’t imagine a better way to talk about the goal of spirituality than to talk about being “fully alive.” To this end much of the social media, while nice, is superficial and often numbing. To be spiritual does not mean I have to give it up. But it does mean I will need to go deeper. I will need to find my passion. To discover the Holy One can even turn out to be a terrifying longing.
But it is worth it. To find that Divine One will be a different form of face time! As Brooks says, it will lead to an experience that produces joy. Joy is the fruit of the Spirit. To pull this off will require that I learn the art of focus.