Awakening from the Enchantment of Distraction
Distraction seems to be a growing concern in our society. How is it affecting productivity? How does it interfere with individuals engaging in their own lives? What impact does it have on interpersonal relations? Are people actually feeling lonelier even with all the digital “connections” that have been created over the last couple of decades? What is the relationship between distraction and the experience of depression and anxiety? Are there neurological explanations for the phenomena? These are the questions floating around the social science, neuropsychological, management and economic research. At the end of the day I find them frequently floating around my own brain as I listen to symptoms related to “distraction” from my clients.
I’ve been thinking that perhaps we are really talking about avoidance and calling it distraction. When we use the word, “distraction,” we seem to be describing an involuntary act caused by some external event in the environment around us. It does not feel like a decision or a choice has been made. The vehicles could be surfing the web, reading unending blogs all day, attending to Facebook, checking for contacts on a hook up app or something even older such as substance abuse or the World Cup. It could be something like reading our e mail or being plugged into music or conversations with someone miles away while we are walking on city streets or riding in our autos or on public transit. It seems like we have expanded the means of avoiding our everyday existence exponentially.
Distraction/avoidance can cause a high level of anxiety and/or a serious depression from the shame and guilt and frustration an individual can feel due to feeling stuck and not getting things done in their lives. It can lead to loss of employment, the destruction of relationships and a feeling that one is spinning their wheels in everyday life.
I believe we can overcome this quicksand pit by recognizing when it is happening and consciously working toward making conscious decisions about doing what we really want to do in the process of creating a life we want to lead. First we need to recognize that we are avoiding some pain or difficulty that life has thrown at us and accept the fact that it is present. We can embrace the experience and “lean into it” rather than avoid it; thereby, diminishing its impact on us. Only the demons we attempt to run away from can really keep us trapped in the enchanted world of distraction/avoidance. Second, by identifying our personal values, those beliefs that serve us by providing a compass for decision making, and moving toward manifesting those values with committed actions on a daily basis we can create the rich and satisfying life most people say they want. The application of mindfulness, being present in the moment and in a non-judgmental way, allows us to consciously take the actions we need to take to move forward in our lives. We can even make mindful decisions about when and where to use our digital tools, take a drink, a nap or even enjoy sex by limiting the impact of avoidance. We can wake up from the enchantment and come to our lives with some real energy, fully engaged in life.
Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow
She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. — Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)
These lines have been going through my head in the last week. I first had to memorize this soliloquy in 8th grade. It was difficult for a young teen to grasp the existential despair and exhaustion Macbeth was expressing after hearing of the death of Lady Macbeth while facing his demise and the loss of everything he thought he had in his grasp.
Now that I am 66, the words bring on thoughts that seem to go to the depths of my being. Macbeth starts off by musing about the misfortune of Lady Macbeth’s inopportune death. If only she could have died later there might have been more time to mourn and acknowledge her. This reminds me of the fact that, in general, we cannot plan on all the events of our lives including our deaths or the deaths of those we know and love. Staying attuned to the present moment and taking the time to appreciate what is actually there with us in that moment could reduce the suffering, remorse and regret in our lives.
The everydayness of our lives can numb us as we follow paths lit by the fools who came before us in an unthinking, unaware state and we leave a similar path for those who follow. We take up various beliefs, social and personal constructs, and act on them, forgetting that we and others before us have made them up but we act as if they are true and real. Macbeth’s tragedy, in my mind’s eye, is that he got caught up in the illusions of his own mind and did not take the time to truly observe and experience what was going on in his realm. He was assured he would never be vanquished until the “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane hill Shall come against him.” Well, the illusory woods, formed by the troops who were about to lay siege to his castle moved into place and he could not see it coming. In the end he finds himself exhausted of all resources.
It seems like my clients face this challenge at work and in their domestic or family lives. In the work environment they find that the anxiety driven, unbalanced thinking, and illusionary thought of the leadership of their work place creates a charged, unconscious environment that eventually catches all who are part of the company culture. People become blind to the stress they have created and maintain until they hit burnout and find themselves addicted to some substance or behavior that seems to provide some temporary relief but only more pain later or they enter the depths of psychic and physical exhaustion. We take on scripts of that “poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more.” The “promised land” is just around the corner or over the next hill or at the end of the next project but no matter how successful they may be, people do not take the time to appreciate and acknowledge the accomplishment so the “success” does not register and all they remember is the pain and suffering experienced in getting to that success: the “sound and fury signifying nothing.”
On the domestic front people fall into beliefs that lead to rigid self concepts about roles they are supposed to play and assumptions about what others in the family are thinking or feeling. Frequently, this starts before marriage when red flags can be flying but people convince themselves that once they say, “I do,” everything will turn out just the way they imagined it was “supposed to be.”
These illusions and assumptions or expectations lead to the “sound and fury” of our lives. When the disturbance passes we frequently find ourselves feeling empty; wondering, “What was that about, really?” All too frequently, we feel that it signifies nothing and we are faced with a sense of despair and absurdity.
Macbeth’s existential despair and exhaustion does not have to be ours. While we all do end in “dusty death” the quality of our lives in the moment can create a life that can absorb and deal with the challenges and leave a legacy of equanimity, creative opportunities and even joy for those who follow. Every waking moment provides an opportunity to create meaning and make decisions that can support our lives and those of people around us. I believe Jean Paul Sartre was correct in his description of “the existential legislator.” If there is no predetermined definition of what it means to be human, then every decision we make builds that definition. We take on the responsibility for the quality of life for ourselves and others when we make decisions about how to lead our lives.
Since I tend to specialize in working with adults with ADHD and the associated depression and anxiety that seems to accompany it, I do a great deal of thinking about “distraction:” what it means, how it works or appears to us and what purpose does it serve. I thought I would share my thoughts on the matter with you.
When people first hear of ADHD it is not unusual for them to say something like, “well, we all have it sometime, right?” Given the ever increasing demands for instant gratification for information and communication and the devices to satisfy those demands we can usually agree. Given the title, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder or even just the plain old Attention Deficit Disorder, it is clear that distraction seems to be the primary “symptom” or condition in trying to describe the “disorder.” Dr. Russell Barkley, someone I consider to be the “dean” of ADHD research points out; however, that distraction or attention deficit is not primary in considering ADHD, it is really just part of a greater pattern of behaviors associated with difficulties in executive functioning resulting from differences in the structure of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. Challenges to executive functioning make filtering the enormous amount of information that confronts people on a daily basis difficult. Everything seems to be urgent and in need of attention all at the same time because the brain does not seem to be filtering all that information efficiently. This leads to difficulty setting priorities and making decisions. It also impacts the “working memory” making recalling information necessary for making decisions a bit slow or difficult.
Of course, given the experience described above, one can understand “distraction” as a means of dealing with the anxiety that comes from feeling like you are playing “Beat the Clock” 24/7 and knowing that the game is fixed against you. While some of it is due to neurological differences, certainly, the calming effect of being distracted by something one can actually engage and do something about helps avoid the pain and worries of that experience. Depression commonly runs along with ADHD in children and adults. Again, while it is usually “endogenous,” that is, organic, the perception of constant failure or negative feedback for “not getting things done” certainly, exacerbates the depression and forms a narrative that is a challenge to shake by the time adults come into my office. People develop a negative self-concept informed by this sense of failure or fear of failure that eradicates any real experience of success when they do complete anything successfully.
THINGS TO DO THAT CAN HELP
• Meditation practice that trains us to identify when errant thoughts come up and helps us to redirect our attention. This can be done in short periods to start with as long as it is a daily practice. I once heard Lama Surya Das sometimes refer to “quickies” in approaching meditation that can happen in short periods virtually anywhere without special equipment. I frequently recommend that my clients start at one of the Buddhist meditation centers locally to get the support of a community of meditators as they begin this practice.
• “Routine is your friend.” I encourage clients to create routines for themselves during the day to get things done, remember where they put things and limit the numbers of decisions or choices they have to make at critical times of the day: like getting out of the house or getting ready for bed.
• “When I am eating, I am eating. When I am walking, I am walking.” Practice doing one thing at a time and train the mind to experience the comfort that can come from that. There is plenty of research at this point that indicates multi-tasking is not effective or productive and only escalates anxiety and, consequently, the trigger for distraction.
• The Pomodoro Technique was designed by an Italian engineer using a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato. Work on a single task for 25 minutes at a time and take a five minute break before continuing or moving to another task. This means getting up from the desk and away from the computer to reset the mind.
• Know when the Demon of Urgency shows up. You will notice specific physical signs of the demon’s presence. You will find yourself using vocabulary such as: “I can’t do it; I’m overwhelmed, stressed out, freaking out, and paralyzed.” Your inner voice starts chanting, “Not enough time! Never enough time!” You might discover increased heart beats and shorting of your breath. You may start banging fists or head on the nearest hard surface. You or others around you will hear a particular whine in your voice or an escalating need to bellow and shout in a fairly unattractive way. This is the time to learn to leave and take a walk or to back away and just find a quiet place to breath.
Acceptance and Compassion
There seems to be a relationship between “Acceptance” and “Compassion” as concepts influencing the quality of our lives. Is it possible to be compassionate without being accepting? Can anyone really profess to love another individual without being able to fully accept our full experience with them? Can we be compassionate and accepting of others without being so with ourselves and our own life experience? I find the answer to these questions to be a simple, “no.”
It has been my experience that people could work untold numbers of hours serving others in various settings until they hit burnout. What might have started as a sincere desire to help relieve suffering; or support another in achieving their personal goals; or expressing themselves in the performing arts or in education could end up being simply toxic to those we want to help. By avoiding one’s own personal needs as a human being or being stuck in a depression influenced negative self-concept people start working extended hours and lose sight of their own boundaries, making themselves available 24/7. This phenomenon is most observable among people operating in non-profit charitable organizations as well as in for-profit businesses led by people who measure commitment or productivity by the sacrifices made in their lives and in the lives of their employees.
Frequently, people are drawn to their work to manifest their personal values in service to a good cause or commitment to a particular field of work. They give so completely of themselves that they deny or avoid their own well being. When people become more committed to the outcome than the quality of the process getting there they begin to stop being able to see themselves or one another as anything more than a means to some end. Compassion becomes impossible as we deny acceptance of human limitations. Whether in work settings or in personal relationships, when we insist that others meet unrealistic expectations we lose our ability to be compassionate with one another. When we create unrealistic expectations for ourselves we begin to avoid acknowledgement of our personal needs, abilities or resources we lose compassion for ourselves. People dedicated to the helping and healing professions begin to see their patients or clients as “just another case” or a means of proving their “professional chops” rather than a human in need of real compassion; the environment they work in becomes high pressure and frantic, bordering on inhumane; this is hardly a healing environment.
Take the time to observe your life and your relationships. How accepting are you toward your personal experience? Do you see yourself as a part of the extraordinarily vast web of what it means to be human or as an isolated cell on your own? Is your daily environment, at home or at work or social clubs filled with acceptance and manifestations of compassion or are they lacking? What can you do, realistically, to create that compassionate environment?
The Importance of Radical Acceptance
For the last thirty years or so there have been a few threads of thought and supporting research that have been weaving a new perspective and approach to psychotherapy. New approaches to understanding and the application of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT); behaviorism, the various modalities associated with Humanistic-Existential psychology and neo-Freudian modalities have been influenced by:
- The development of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s “Mindfulness Approach to Stress Management” and his book, WHEREVER YOU GO, THERE YOU ARE,
- The popularity of Daniel Goleman’s book, EMOTIONAL INTELLIGENCE;
- The publication of important longitudinal studies of the impact of meditation on the neurology of the human brain;
- The emergence of neuropsychological research;
- The formulation of theories of neural plasticity;
- Growing evidence of “mind-body” connections and more;
- The coincidental growth of interest in Buddhist psychology (Mindfulness) and spiritually based Yoga practices.
It seems that all this information points to Radical Acceptance as a foundation stone for psychotherapy. We want to start with a full acceptance of human experience as expressed by each individual who enters a therapy office. The therapist must find a way to fully accept the individual as they are and the individual needs to come to accept their own experience as a real part of life; something that cannot necessarily be eliminated but can be embraced as part of their life experience. It may not be pleasant or without pain; however, the experience, fully accepted, embraced or engaged begins to change our relationship to the pain. One of the best metaphors I can think of is that moment in a yoga class when the instructor tells the class to notice the pain and breathe into it. We do not push it or bounce into the asana we simply allow the body to adjust and melt into the position. Eventually we notice that the pain becomes more like a teacher; one that points out the change in our bodies. I see psychic pain caused by anxiety, depression and powerful emotions as being much the same. If we cover them up, push them away, forget to breathe, worry about why they are there, they only seem to get worse. Acceptance seems to actually allow us to experience a richer life that is more flexible and capable of living more fully; accepting all that is presented to us as something to work with and not fear or reject.
This form of acceptance is not passive. It is not about resignation. It is a powerful tool in helping us to work with the life we have and take on the daily challenges we all face.
OLD GHOST STORIES WE BELIEVE…
Frequently, when people enter my office for psychotherapy or counseling they are being trailed by something I have come to call “The Old Ghost.” It is telling a story that people act out in daily life. The story is usually rooted in some fear or anxiety that prevents us from fully engaging in our lives. The “Old Ghost” is so old and so familiar that we are not even fully aware of its presence, we just respond to its dictates: “You can’t do that, it’s too risky!” or “That project is just too big for you to take on! It’s too hard.” “You better just stick to what you know.” We just assume these things are true because “The Old Ghost’s” interpretation of our life’s experience tells us so. These murmurings of “The Old Ghost” create a way of seeing life through a lens that creates a sense of feeling depressed, confused, ineffective, unloved or just too tired or lethargic to move. We feel “trapped;” fearful that if we even explore alternatives we will just end up in the same place or someplace worse. We become convinced that we can get through life by engaging as little as possible; hiding or avoiding to prevent the pain we anticipate in the engagement. We even find ourselves embattled with ourselves, fighting off alternative interpretations of our life experiences because they do not fit with what we think we are supposed to be feeling or experiencing. This “Old Ghost” impacts our ability to work effectively. The Old Ghost (TOG) can interfere with establishing intimate relationships due to fears of failure or exposing our perceived vulnerability or weaknesses to others or that others will take advantage of us or reject us if they knew what TOG knows! These same fears can get in the way of job interviews or even job searches if TOG succeeds in convincing us to be withholding because we fear revealing TOG’s narrative of inadequacy. Of course, the obvious question is, “How do I deal with the Old Ghost? How can I get rid of it? Where are the Ghost Busters when you need them?”
Here is the real challenge in the work of contemporary psychotherapy or counseling: accepting and engaging TOG. When people first come into therapy they expect that therapists have some magic procedure to eliminate TOG; that we are the true Ghost Busters. They also expect that therapists will focus on why the ghost exists and by knowing that they will be able to exorcise it. It just does not work that way. TOG is great at rationalizing and if we spend too much time explaining its existence by talking about the past, I find that all we accomplish is strengthen the narrative TOG wants us to believe; thereby, providing a myriad of reasons for allowing TOG to run our lives rather than engaging and taking on the responsibility for making a decision in the moment.
We have to work on accepting that TOG is in the background and identify the things that happen when it moves into foreground in any scene. This is not easy work, it requires paying attention to the changes in our bodies as the emotions and thoughts associated with TOG’s presence emerge. Sometimes this can require a good deal of courage because of the pain that some of these thoughts and emotions can create. However, if we can breathe into the situation and accept TOG’s presence we can begin to contain its power over us and begin exploring alternative ways of thinking and approaching whatever challenge is being presented in the moment. “In the moment” is the salient phrase here. Remember, TOG is all about the past and wants to interpret every event through the lens of the past. Regardless of how challenging or painful the situation may be, we can engage it and learn how to work with it rather than run away, hide, avoid or allow ourselves to be distracted. Engagement is about accepting TOG and changing our relationship to it. By allowing ourselves to explore the situation, as it is presented to us and not turn away, we can begin to change our perspective of the event or experience and develop more effective ways of working with it. If we can learn to do this often enough we reduce our fear and belief in TOG. We can begin to trust that we can deal with the experience and emotions of the moment as just part of life and; thereby, discover more flexible ways of approaching our lives as we move on.
Give yourself a break already……..
Okay – so you screwed up again! Then there is the resultant self-flaggelation afterward, a collection of responses from mental masturbation, that hamster wheel of thoughts as we mentally rehearse over and over what could have or should have been because, DAMMIT, it wasn’t our fault (projection), to lethargy to sleeplessness (more rehearsing even as we try to get a break from the barrage of thoughts), to isolating to sniping at our partners (displacement is Freud’s term – you know when the boss yells at us and we go home and kick the dog). Whew! I’m exhausted just reading this! And believe me, it is barely the tip of the iceberg of responses of how we berate ourselves when we feel as though we’ve done something wrong. No one is perfect – perfect is boring, an illusion.
Native Americans understood the importance of flaws. In Navajo rugs there is always a flaw built into the design on purpose – This flaw is intentional – the Navajo believe that this flaw allows the spirit, or soul, of the blanket to have the freedom to roam, and for the blanket to never truly end. In reality, there is no such thing as perfect as we are all changing from each millisecond to the next – our bodies are renewing and aging, expanding and contracting with each moment. It would be much more true to think that we are perfect in all of our our imperfections. I can really see the beauty in that. So the next time you screw up, I mean really pull a big one (that isn’t caught on You Tube or anything), try to create some space for self-forgiveness. It is sooo much easier and takes a lot less energy to do so. Ahhhhh.
The Value of Touch
I am intrigued by the use of touch in our world, even across cultures. Whenever I am taking a trip abroad, I’m particularly aware of how touch is used. It can convey so much about how at ease folks are, can communicate how connected or disconnected any group is, and often is much more accurate than words in letting someone know how you feel. In grad school I experimented with using touch in an elementary school setting. There was one young boy, let’s call him Dan, that I saw in therapy for a few years, raised by his mother as his father was in prison. Working with Dan was challenging – he would come to sessions each Monday morning at 10 am nervous and agitated, having difficulties in both his studies and interactions with other children in the classroom. I decided to begin putting my hand on his shoulder as I walked him back to class just to see what would happen, after asking his permission of course. Instantly, I could feel the tension in his back relax while his whole demeanor changed – it felt as if he stopped struggling just for a little while. He became brighter, more engaged in our sessions after that – all from a brief 10 second light touch on the back. I learned a few lessons from this encounter: The importance of taking risks – because touching is a risk – A person can never tell what another’s history is around touch, and how touch can communicate belonging and worth, even a sense of community. Check out the link here for an article in the NY Times on the power of touch.
So the next time you are feeling out of touch, literally, with others trying reaching out for a little physical contact.
Finding our Center? I didn’t realize I’d lost it……………….
Where is our center? Just what does this mean, finding our center? Perhaps we know it all too well when we are around a man that is “not centered.” They tend to be spacey versus present emotionally and tend toward reacting instead of acting in situations. Typically a centered man knows what they want and need versus a man that is easily influenced by others. This isn’t about generalizing – more about helping you to recognize when you are around man that is not centered. Typically a man that is centered responds after hearing what you have to say, versus a non-centered man that answers while listening. See where I am going with this?
Being uncentered takes us into our anxious selves, into our heads – and when the energy is moving up instead of down into our grounding and centering, it becomes difficult to think clearly. We tend to look into our surround for guidance instead of inside, to that inner knowing that we all possess. So, what the heck do we DO about this, when it seems to whole world is conspiring against our coming from a centered place in our lives? It’s all about the awareness, baby!
In my spiritual training back in the 80′s I learned the importance of a centering practice, about expanding my everyday awareness to include all of the sensations of my body. I discovered the ‘language” of the body, my body. Once I opened myself up to this practice, or meditation (and it really is a body mediation!), I discovered a whole other way of knowing, a whole other way of being in the world. Men frequently ask me, “how did you know this or that?” when really it is about opening myself up to an inner language of my body. THIS INNER KNOWNG CANNOT HAPPEN IF WE ARE NOT CENTERED!
In addition to a general body awareness practice there are all kinds of centering practices: usually some form of somatic movement such as yoga, Chi Gong, swimming (a meditative practice in itself, yes.), even body-building or dancing in front of a full-length mirror can help develop centering. One note though – any kind of trauma can interrupt what is called an “orienting reflex” making it a challenge to find our center. Working with a qualified movement therapist or somatic practitioner can help with this. To me, life, our relationships, and even our level of contentedness is all about FIRST finding our center.
Opening the Gates
The German philosopher Schopenhauer wrote that there are two kinds of people in this world – those that think there are two kinds of people in this world and those that do not. You may be thinking while reading this, “wait, what?”
This quote reminds me of how we try to grasp onto dualities to make sense of our lives. Good versus bad, dark versus light, open or closed, hard and soft, top or bottom, hairy or smooth – these distinctions serve us in one sense by helping to define and demarcate our place and our boundaries yet, developmentally, it a young way to view the world. Imagine a small infant, learning more about the world with every moment – the concept of dualities helps them discover me/not me, a fundamental shift from the oneness of the mother/child bond.
Later as the child grows, this conceptual way of thinking about the world will even show up in their play: cowboys and Indians, even competitive team sports where there is only one winner and one loser. As adults, one can see this dualistic thinking in politics, law enforcement and the whole judicial system, especially in the business world however it can only take us so far. This perspective serves to lock us into seeing the world in one way, a limited point of view. Michael Mahoney, in his book Constructive Psychotherapy calls seeing the world through a dualistic lens as a Core Ordering Process, operating at just below our level of awareness.
If you watch any TV series, like Heroes or even a soup opera like Days of our Lives, you will quickly notice that things are really grey, not black and white as we so often crave. We come to despise or hate a character, often vehemently so, and then we learn that this person has a back story, is very different and often, against our best judgment, we may even begin to (gasp!) feel compassion for this character. This is what draws us in, captivates us, makes us want to tune in next week – and here’s why: Black and white thinking is rigid and predictable (not making for good TV) while human beings are far from that. A dualistic way of perceiving our lives limits us, holds us back from seeing all that we are and all that we could be. We are multidimensional beings just like our emotions. In any one hour we may feel sad, angry, peaceful, and annoyed. We are fluid and much, much more than these dualities.
Buddhists have a saying that there are no good days or bad days – there are just days. This means that it is our egos that try to grasp onto something to give life meaning, only seeing a life through the lens of dualities holds us back from living our life fully. This filter is like looking through binoculars – we only have a narrow field of vision. The next time you catch yourself having a strong reaction to something or someone, try asking yourself if you are coming from a place of either/or. You may find your heart begin to open and your body soften, opening the gates of your consciousness, allowing a more balanced point of view to emerge.
Posted by Dino Di Donato on July 8, 2014
Distraction seems to be a growing concern in our society. How is it affecting productivity? How does it interfere with individuals engaging in their own lives? What impact does it have on interpersonal relations? Are people actually feeling lonelier even with all the digital “connections” that have been created over the last couple of decades? […]Read The Full Post
Posted by Dino Di Donato on May 15, 2014
She should have died hereafter; There would have been a time for such a word. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a […]Read The Full Post