Dani Shapiro
September 20, 2010

On Distraction

For the past few days I’ve been reading a book by Eckhart Tolle.  Quite a few people who read Devotion asked me if I had read Tolle’s work, which I hadn’t.  So I picked up a copy at the Kripalu bookstore, and dug in.  There’s no arguing with Tolle’s message, which is that our minds are constantly leading us into the past (memory) or into the future (projection) when really all we have, all that exists, is the Now.  The present.  I know this, I think about it all the time, I grapple with it on a daily basis.  But as I’ve been reading the Tolle, I find myself jarred and troubled.  My relationship with my mind has become adversarial, as if I’m constantly trying to tamp it down, to silence it.  As a couple of friends pointed out to me yesterday, the book is more prescriptive, more self-helpy than what I’m used to reading.  Each and every page exhorts the reader to think of her mind as the enemy of her spirit.  I don’t want to think of my mind as my enemy.  What I want to do–what I try to do–is gently bring it into alignment, the way a good parent might take a screaming toddler by the hand.

Many times a day, I realize that my thoughts have drifted far away from whatever I’m actually doing.  It happens when I’m driving, walking, reading, even writing.  Certainly, it happens while I’m meditating or practicing yoga.  I tend to leap more into the future than to dwell in the past, but wherever I go, I’m not in the present.  I can be driving in my car for twenty minutes and suddenly realize that I’ve covered a lot of ground, while noticing nothing around me.

It’s harder and harder, of course.  We all know this.  We are faced with ever-increasing distractions.  The noise is always around us, luring us away from a state of interiority.  Our days are filled with what Virginia Woolf called “cotton wool”.  As I’m in a delicate place, at the moment, poised near the edge of beginning a new book, not quite there yet, I feel a bit like a swimmer, toes curled against a diving board, ready to spring off, not sure whether or not there’s water in the pool below.  It’s a state in which distraction looms around every corner.   Everything is more enticing than writing that first sentence.  Everything is less scary, more appealing.  All the voices speak in chorus: what if it doesn’t work?  What if it’s no good?  What if it’s a terrible mistake? And I find myself online, instead.  Looking at possible bicycle trips through Provence, or a recipe for cream of tomato soup, or the perfect pair of black boots.

But eventually, I know from experience that I will make friends with my mind.  I will lay the transparency of mind over the transparency of spirit until they form a single, coherent picture.  Instead of approaching my mind as a foe, I will greet it as a friend.  There you are, I will say.  As if to a tantrum-y toddler.  Come on.  Let’s go.