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‘Lead Us Not into Distraction’
What Monks and Nuns Know about Staying Focused. Reviewing Jamie Kreiner’s ‘The Wandering Mind’
How many meetings do you have on your calendar right now? If you’re trying to identify your greatest productivity sinkhole, it’s probably those—especially meetings badly run and too numerous to manage. “Inefficient meetings are the No. 1 workplace distraction that hurts productivity,” according to a study by Microsoft, “followed closely by having too many meetings. . . .”
More than thirty thousand workers around the globe participated in the survey, but it would have been interesting to see what a narrower demographic—namely, monks and nuns—might make of the problem.
Monastics, it turns out, know a few things about focus, attention, and all the distractions that divert our minds from their desired objects. That’s the claim of University of Georgia professor Jamie Kreiner’s illuminating and enjoyable history, The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us about Distraction.
From our vantage point today with our chirping, buzzing, vibrating portable devices and apps, inescapable environmental noise, and polychromatic visual clutter, the comparison across the centuries might seem like a stretch. What’s more, all the contemporary books on distraction—the many new announcements for which can drive an attentive reader to, well, distraction—are contemporary, fixated on modern technology and workspaces and what psychological studies say about the problems they pose.
Some of those books, I hasten to add, are quite good. But given this overwhelming emphasis we could easily and erroneously conclude fractured focus is a uniquely modern conundrum. Kreiner’s exploration of monastic history and literature offers a compelling corrective.
In the World but Focused Beyond
Starting in North Africa, ancient and medieval Christian monasticism spanned from the British Isles to Persia, even as far as Western China. While the movement encompassed diverse cultures and languages, its fundamental preoccupation remained the same wherever it flourished: to focus the mind on God through prayer. And that, as it turns out, is hard to do.
The monastic life was itself an attempt to battle distraction. The never-ending demands of city, village, family, friends, employment all easily broke a person’s concentration. Monks retreated from the world as solitaries or in special communities—monasteries—to be free of distractions. But, of course, the world followed them into their seclusion.
While monks might have lived on the outskirts of society, Kreiner points out they were intimately involved nonetheless. They couldn’t escape. Their neighbors pestered them for advice and counsel. In lieu of local magistrates and physicians, monks arbitrated conflicts between contestants and offered medical help. Some even served as liaisons for those in prison. So-called pillar saints, monastics who dwelt atop high columns to shut out the world and allow greater focus, found they attracted visitors from far and wide who wished to “hear a word” from the wiseman or ask prayers for health, healing, exorcism, and more.
As Kreiner points out, monks thought a lot about concentration and focus because it was hard to come by—a complaint that feels remarkably modern. Whenever they concentrated on their prayers, voices interrupted to draw them away. Swap the occupation and most of us can probably relate.
To regulate interruptions from outside—and more pernicious disruptions from within—monastic communities developed rules. The most famous of these is probably the Rule of St. Benedict, but there were countless others. Monastic rules guided when meals were taken, how chores were divided, what kind of reading ought to happen and when, and so on. For monks at work, the rules sometimes forbade chatter. A monk could pray and work at the same time—unless he was busy gossiping or trying to filter out idle talk. If you’ve ever worked alongside a talkative coworker, you know the challenge.
But whatever these external obstacles to focus, nothing was so problematic as the monk’s own mind. The mind was essential for concentration; unless trained, however, the mind was more likely to sabotage one’s focus. No surprise: Monks had opinions about what constituted good mental training.
Battle for the Mind
Kreiner’s coverage shifts to a string of strategies and tactics meant to shape and condition the mind for singleminded focus on prayer.
The body. Recognizing psychosomatic links, monks advised rigorous treatment of the body to help train the mind. Monks distrusted sleep and advocated fasting regimens that would alarm most of our contemporaries—Elon Musk and Penn Jillette excluded. (Thanks to the legacy of the former, we could even say the latter are monastic in their focus.) Whatever we think of their particular methods, we’ve all experienced moments where bodily urges and energies draw our minds away from the task at hand.
Reading. Books offered a powerful tool to combat distraction. While the mind wandered, a text could bring it back. And the content of those books, monks believed, could reform the mind. As a result, monastic communities became leading centers of literacy and book production. But the difference between medicine and poison is often the dose, and books posed problems for the distractible as well; it was easy—like a modern person falling down an internet rabbit hole—to chase ideas for their own sake and lose track of the original goal.
Memory. While we tend to think about where our memories come up short, Kreiner notes that monks were more concerned about hyperactive memories interrupting their thoughts. “It was impossible to empty your mind completely, no matter how much you disliked its contents,” she writes. “But you could restock it, and reorganize it, filling it with things you actually cared about and making them easier to access.” To that end monks deployed a whole range of mnemonic and meditation strategies to train and develop their memory.
Metacognition. Monks spent a lot of time in their own heads, thinking about the mechanisms of thought. They learned to observe, discern, and categorize their thoughts, creating a place of objectivity from which to decide how to engage. “Some monks visualized not only their thoughts but also themselves thinking those thoughts, as a way to reframe their prayers and keep them from meandering,” says Kreiner, adding: “The technique bears a rough resemblance to the modern psychological exercise known as ‘distancing.’”
Some of these techniques were birthed within the monasteries themselves and shared across regions and centuries by traveling authorities or their books, several of which have come down to the present as spiritual classics: The Ladder of Divine Ascent, John Cassian’s Institutes and Conferences, the works of Evagrius of Pontus, or the pseudonymous Macarius’s Fifty Spiritual Homilies.
Others were adopted and adapted from pagan philosophical schools. Christian monks took up, for instance, the Stoic practice of remembering one’s death as a means to chasten the mind. People in the Greco-Roman past mediated upon their demise as a way of focusing their attentions on desirable behaviors in the present. Monks, as Kreiner notes, updated the discipline with eternity in mind, imagining both the bliss of heaven and the tortures of hell. But the basic approach remained remarkably similar— stepping out of the moment to gain a better vantage point on the moment.
Focus on Then to Focus on Now
I’ve recently written on the necessity of reading old books; in fact, I’ve written on it a couple of times. There’s a curiously modern tendency to think only contemporary voices can address contemporary issues. But often older voices not only have uniquely valuable things to say, they say it in ways we don’t expect. They can hit us, as C.S. Lewis said, like “the clean sea breeze.”
Jamie Kreiner’s The Wandering Mind hit me like that, thanks to her wide-ranging and deep-probing research, not to mention her artfully written prose. Ancient and medieval monks have a lot to teach us, as I’ve covered before, especially on the life of the mind and what it means for our daily experience. “Monks saw distraction in many dimensions,” says Kreiner—
psychological, physical, social, cultural, cosmic—and their goals for concentration were likewise varied and expansive. They were certain that a focused mind could better connect the self to the divine while charting an ethical path through the universe. . . . And although monks were never satisfied with their accomplishments, when it came to concentration they offered an example for others—if not to emulate exactly, then at least to take as proof that cognition was morally significant.
Just as monastics adopted and adapted Stoic methods for focus, we can adopt and adapt monastic methods. We can, for instance, structure our environment to rule out interruptions; create rules that guide our time and activity to more productive aims; and think about our thinking so we can steer our thoughts, rather than be steered by them.
Finally, what would monks do about all those awful meetings? Based on Kreiner’s argument and evidence, I feel confident in saying they’d reform the way meetings were run, insist they stay focused on profitable outcomes, and capture the updated procedures in the next revision to the monastic rule.
Unless, of course, they regarded terrible meetings as some sort of penance. I’m sure we can all identify with that.
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