Embracing Presence in an Age of Distraction

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As a product of Generation X, I remember well what life was like before computers, cellphones, the internet, and the ubiquity of social media. I don't remember it well, however, as long term memory increasingly becomes decimated by the availability of search engines that will index more knowledge than we will ever have time to consume. There is much that has been written about the effect of the internet on how we move experiences and information from our working memory into our long term memory, but, suffice it to say, it has made us increasingly susceptible to the dangers of multitasking, skimming, and satiating our voracious appetite for vacuous information. Who among us hasn't gotten pulled down the rabbit hole of information only to look up and realize that 30 minutes (or three hours) have passed, and we can no longer remember what we were originally looking for in the first place? We failed to consider that the information superhighway we've been on since the early 1990s may not be leading us in the direction we had hoped. As with any technological advancement, there are pluses and minuses, but a cursory scroll through one's social media feed (even that collection of words would have sounded nonsensical less than 30 years ago) includes photos of families at restaurants all glued to their phones, immersed in worlds more important than the embodied relationships around the table and countless selfies engineered to evoke admiration, affirmation, or sympathy. The distractive possibilities are seemingly endless. 

That we seek distraction is nothing new. If we were to sit quietly around a fire under the stars I am sure it wouldn't take long for us to come up with a myriad of ways we avoid presence in our lives. By presence, I mean that sense in which we are fully here in this moment, in our bodies, softly attentive to ourselves, our environment, and the people around us. If you were to think about it for a few minutes, you could likely name a few people in your life who embody presence in their daily living. They are grounded, non-anxious, abounding in self-compassion, fully attentive, and often so at home in their humanity that you feel more fully yourself in their presence. I have long wondered what gave them such attractive qualities. In my younger days, I used to think that these people were simply born that way, uniquely gifted to become the spiritual gurus or faithful guides of their generation. As I am coming to appreciate, however, each and every one has one thing in common:

They summoned the courage to face their shadow and the great void against which we organize our lives through various strategies of escape. 

They did not arrive to this wisdom right away. Almost to the person, I have heard stories of the countless ways they attempted to fill the space in order to quiet the soul's demand to be heard. However, through trial and error, support and accountability, and, for some, simply getting to a place of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, these people stopped losing themselves in a sea of projections and turned toward the very thing that they had been distracting themselves from all those years. What followed were experiences of profound pain brought about by a refusal to anesthetize themselves from these difficult realities.

The process of detoxification, regardless of our drug of choice (e.g., alcohol, social media, relationships, Netflix binging, over exercising, food, etc.), is one that offers us the dangerous possibility of facing ourselves, being present to our fullness, embracing our imperfections, and grieving deeply. As Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption and Jamal Malik in Slumdog Millionaire teach us, the road to freedom requires a journey into—rather than away from—the existential excrement of our lives. On the other side of this perilous path lies joy, spontaneity, contentment, and a spirituality infused with life and adventure. 

Some of you have likely read about the Stanford marshmallow experiment from the 1960s wherein researchers offered children one marshmallow they could eat immediately or the opportunity to eat two marshmallows if they could wait fifteen minutes without eating the one marshmallow in front of them. At the time, the researchers posited that the ability to delay gratification would lead to higher test scores and greater success. The results of those original studies have now been called into serious question, but the concept behind the study itself is instructive for us in how we choose to distract ourselves in ways that keep us from becoming persons who can embrace presence. We rarely encounter the depths available within because we're too easily satisfied by consuming one marshmallow now. 

I am thoroughly convinced we are all addicts. Some of us are simply more honest about the nature of our addictions. I believe wholeheartedly, however, that when we can find the courage to simply sit in our discomfort and allow ourselves to face the thing that we most fear, we begin the journey that leads to wholeness and presence. By waiting patiently in front of that marshmallow, we slowly but surely transform our pain into a gift of presence that can be offered to a world desperate for our full and loving attention.