Our Brains Generate Distractions All The Time – The Struggle Is To Create Focus.
By Thomas J. Roach
Pink Floyd’s song “Brain Damage” has a progressively unsettling image. It illustrates what Buddhists call monkey mind – the constant clatter of distracting thoughts that pull our attention away from experiencing the moment.
The lyric uses lunatics in the newspaper as a metaphor for inner distractions. The people in the newspaper invade the singer’s consciousness. First the paper is thrown in the grass and then it lies in a hall where it “holds their folded faces to the floor.” Finally he reads it, and the second verse ends with, “There’s someone in my head and it’s not me.”
Our brains generate distractions all the time, and the struggle to create focus and to think and communicate rationally has been addressed throughout history by poets and theologians as well as by psychologists. Not to mention, quarry operators.
Homer dramatizes the seductive power of the inner voices in the Odyssey. Sirens sing to sailors who come close to the shore. Their song is so enchanting that everyone who hears it abandons his ship and is lured to his death.
The sorceress Circe advises Odysseus and his crew to plug their ears with wax when they pass. However, Odysseus wants to experience the sweetness of their song, so he has his men bind him to the mast. They put wax in their ears, but Odysseus is free to listen. As the ship passes, the sirens, surrounded by dead men’s bones, sing to Odysseus, and he begs his men to untie him so he can swim ashore.
John Keats Says
Monkey mind is not only a challenge to those who want to meditate; it lures us away from the words of our coworkers, slows our reactions and prevents us from taking action. John Keats saw art in this light. In “Ode To A Grecian Urn” he describes a beautiful vase with “marble men and maidens overwrought/With forest branches and the trodden weed.” Then in the next line the poem turns dark: “Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought.”
Professional communicators wrestle with monkey mind on two levels: first, we are challenged to harness and express our own best thoughts, and second, we endeavor to capture and direct the thoughts of our listeners and readers.
Mindfulness is a technique to bring focus on the moment by thinking about what you are experiencing, by listening to the sounds around you and feeling the texture of surfaces you touch.
We do this when tasting wine; we look at the color and notice the level of viscosity as it clings to the inside of the glass, then we smell the bouquet, and finally we taste the fermented grape juice and attempt to describe the layers of flavor. The discipline of mindfulness asks us to do this with everything we encounter.
Good writing requires one to be aware of the details and to convey them sparsely and directly so the reader is distracted from his or her own demons and shares the character’s experience.
Ernest Hemingway was a master at portraying mindfulness. In his short story “The Big Two Hearted River” his character, Nick, goes trout fishing. The author says, “He stepped into the stream. It was a shock. His trousers clung tight to his legs. His shoes felt the gravel. The water was a rising cold shock.”
Those who practice mindfulness understand there is no way to quiet the mind. They are simply trying to avoid distractions and judgments and focus on the moment. The first step is to notice that your mind is wandering, and then you can try to redirect your attention into the present. Then judgment enters your consciousness, and you feel pride because you had a moment of focus. Then you realize you slipped and you refocus.
Practicing mindfulness doesn’t lead to a state of grace; it maintains a kind of equilibrium that keeps us ever in sight of the substance of reality – aware, as Keats said, that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at [email protected].