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Deluded Through Distraction

It is claimed by some that the 18th century, Dutch enlightenment philosopher, Baruch Spinoza was the pre-eminent writer on eternity. He was certainly one of the initial philosophers in the West to try to come to grips with the notion of Self. His work is credited with initiating biblical criticism.

 

Spinoza proclaimed, “Only intense reflection, detaching itself from all life’s clutter and clatter, can discover the eternal.”

 

I have been musing that few of my fellow citizens are likely to make that discovery. Let me illustrate for you some of the observations that seem to support my pessimism in that regard.

 

The plane is doing its approach to the airport. There’s a small crosswind and the aircraft sideslips onto the runway with a bit of a jolt. The left-hand wheels are on the runway now and gravity soon ensures that the right wheels touch down soon after. There is a dramatic braking and we are thrust forward in our seats. But very soon the plane is taxiing pleasantly along the runway to the terminal.

 

A voice comes over the intercom. “Although we are now on the ground we are still concerned for your safety. So please stay seated with your seat-belt on until the plane comes to a stop at the terminal and the captain turns off the seat-belt sign. Those of you who are within reach of your mobile phones may now turn them on.”

 

There is a great flurry of activity as passengers retrieve their mobiles, access their message banks or make calls. We have been flying for no more than an hour but in that hour we have lost contact with the outside world. Surely there must be urgent information for us to now access. There are calls we need to make that can’t wait another minute. Or we need immediately to examine our e-mails because we know there is one there somehow that is going to change our lives (or at least distract us from them). Our significance in this world has somehow been diminished by not being able to immediately participate in this communication traffic for a whole hour!

 

I am staying at an inner city hotel. It is not the flashest in town, but it is comfortable, reasonably priced and convenient to where I need to go to work with my clients. I get in from the airport midafternoon and check in. I have a late afternoon appointment. When that’s done I come back and prepare to go down for an early dinner. When I enter the bistro I am assailed by the cacophony of several television sets on different stations competing for attention with the afternoon’s news, the sporting results and some inane reality TV show. Is it too much to ask that I should just have a little quiet time by myself?

 

In the morning I get up to the sound of my alarm. By the time I have dressed and made my way down to the bike track by the river for a gentle jog it is 5:30am. When I get to the track there are already quite a few walkers there. Surprisingly quite a few of them are walking and talking on their mobile phones. (Who do you talk to on your mobile at 5:30am?)

 

On another day I attend a function in the ballroom of a major city hotel. At my table are eight or nine others, senior executives and a couple of well-known academics. The lunch has been arranged to provide a forum for a former prime minister to speak. Prior to the main event we exchange some pleasantries along with business cards and partake of a glass of wine. Sitting across from me is a former CEO who now holds board positions on the boards of some significant companies. It was pleasant to reminisce with him over past shared experiences. But as soon as the guest speaker commences he gets out his smart phone and starts dealing with e-mails and texting! When the speech is finished, (which I must confess I found both thought provoking and entertaining) and question time commences, my friend stands up and asks a very intelligent question. Given that he hadn’t listened to the speech I could only assume he must have prepared it beforehand.

 

This all seems to me to be a dilemma. It would seem that somehow we can’t abide our own company. It seems we must find distractions and diversions so that we are not faced with the awful prospect of confronting ourselves. What hope have we of living meaningful lives if we can’t be reconciled with ourselves?

 

I wonder what Spinoza would have made of all this. Rather than detaching ourselves from “all life’s clutter and clatter” we seem intent on increasing it!

 

It is only those who have forgotten where they came from that feel uncomfortable in the presence of themselves.

 

Postscript

 

I wrote most of the above words or something similar some ten years ago. I identified the problem then, rightly, as one of distraction. But perhaps it would have been more useful to look at this issue a little more deeply, because in the end the need for incessant distraction is a symptom of a more fundamental problem.

 

Firstly I would ask the question, “Why do so many of us believe that we need such distractions?”

 

Using the good Dr Phil’s terminology, it is because the egoic mind has created in most of us internal conflicts that seemingly can’t be easily resolved. Our egos have created a range of desires that are generally beyond our physical capacity to meet.

 

When I become obsessed with attaining material success, my personal appearance, my need to be loved and admired and so on, I have largely saddled myself with desires that will be very difficult for me to satisfy.

 

Consequently, when I am forced to languish in my own company my ego becomes an impossible companion. It causes me to obsess and worry. It chides me I am not good enough, I am a failure, I can never be happy unless I meet all these obsessional demands. Under these circumstances it is no wonder that I seek the comfort of distraction. For many who can’t distract themselves enough and who are forced to endure this excruciating self-criticism without adequate self-defence mechanisms, they are overtaken with depression.

 

So in some respects, distraction provides temporary relief – but it certainly doesn’t solve the problem.

 

In my coaching practice, I have often had to deal with people who, if not clinically depressed, had certainly not reconciled with themselves very well. Most such people will complain that they wake in the night and can’t go back to sleep. Their minds are full of recriminating self-talk and worry.

 

This problem emanates from not knowing truly who you are and having therefore come to some reasonable degree of self-acceptance. I have written many essays around these subjects and would urge you to troll through the archives section of my blog page if you wish to know more.

 

Let me assure you however, you can’t distract yourself as a mechanism of attaining personal well-being. That can only come from truly knowing and accepting yourself.

 

If I were to ask you about the time you felt happiest your answer is likely to be along the lines of:

 

  • Some deep peace experienced in a harmonious natural setting,
  • A singular moment of achievement such as a sporting triumph, academic success or a business coup,
  • A personal experience such as the birth of a child, the confirmation of love from a desired romantic partner or a moment of peaceful intimacy with those close to us.

 

The French geneticist and Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, summarises thus:

 

The common factor to all these experiences would seem to be the momentary disappearance of inner conflicts.

 

The good news is that we don’t need to distract ourselves from these inner conflicts because we have the capability of resolving them if we would only put down our smart phones and confront them!

 

When the ego is put aside and we learn to still the mind chatter (the “monkey mind” as Buddhists sometimes call it,) thoughts of the past are suppressed, the mind is not burdened with concerns for the future and the present moment is liberated to enable us to live blissfully in the “now”.

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