Last week, I wrote that the future of the world depends in no small part upon how we – the normal, everyday people who populate this globe, practice our capacity for presence and focus. We live in uncertain times, but we are not helpless. As I argued in my previous post, we begin changing the world by putting our own houses in order.
The following points are the tools I’ve found particularly helpful for gaining mastery over my own world. However, as you read what follows, two objections may raise themselves in your mind: these things may certainly be healthy and good, but how do they help us change the world? And are these not simply helpful self-help tools for living a better life? In other words, are not all these tools fundamentally about us? Helpful in living a good life, certainly, but useless when it comes to changing the world?
I fundamentally disagree. None of these tools are ultimately about me, though they do, without doubt, benefit me and add greater depth and meaning to my life. Instead, the tools I lay out in the rest of this post are about something higher than myself: they lay the groundwork for contributing meaning to the world. There is a profound interplay between myself and the world: what is good for me is also good for the world; the two cannot be separated. This is, perhaps, why the self-help genre feels so vapid: it unplugs us from the rest of the world, and is solely about us. This post is not self help – it is much more holistic, much more about the cosmos itself, of which we are only a part.
And how can these things help heal the world? They bring out the better angels of our nature – our connectivity, our ingenuity, our transcendent mysticism, our capacity for kindness, innovation, and minimalism. If we have any hope of survival, we must all strive for these qualities, and not just rely on those at the top to carry us forward.
Our world is starved for answers: to violence, despair, conflict, and war. As we live with a mounting need for answers to our greatest problems, so too is a sabotaging roar of noise rising. We live saturated with constant distraction, and the mental hum and anxiety this produces utterly debilitates us to finding meaningful lives and answers. Social media, infotainment and apps have crowded our lives, and there is good evidence that this is permanently disabling our focus.
If we are to find answers, to our personal problems as well as the world’s, we need to drastically cut our reliance on these technologies. Answers come in silence to a focused mind.
The morass of time and attention consuming media is like a strangling vine, and if we are to have any hope of survival we must discipline our consumption of technologies masquerading as tools. This is, in my view, non-negotiable. The more we allow distraction to fracture our daily lives, the more we inhibit our capacity to find answers and live fully. I have dedicated myself to curtailing the influence of distraction in my life, and I encourage you to do the same.
The link between embracing mental silence and the next item cannot be over emphasized: there is not one without the other. If we never discipline our daily focus and stop mortally wounding our attention span with never ending Social Media we will never be able to go deep.
As we drain the swamp of distraction, we provide the context for something that, I am now convinced, is one of the most valuable, rare, and powerful tools in the world: Deep Work.
Deep Work – a term coined by Cal Newport – is the practice of prolonged, heavy focus on a meaningful topic or creative endeavor without interruption or distraction. In order for something to be deep work, it must be something that only you can do, and it must add value to your life or to the world. In other words, cleaning the kitchen might be a pressing concern for you and might require some focus, but because anyone can do it, it does not qualify as Deep Work. Tweaking your website for hours on end may feel vital, but any intern could do that, so that is not Deep Work.
Rather, Deep Work is the vital stuff that only you – you, with your unique neural and spiritual thumbprint – can accomplish. I count this blog as deep work, as well as any other writing I do. My Recovery step work also counts as deep work, as well as some of my spiritual practices like meditation and journaling. I also count study of a book or subject I want to master as Deep Work. These are things that only I can do in my unique way, and they build me and the world. Going Deep – where my focus is magnified and takes on a magic-like quality – that is where worlds are made, where answers are found, where the planet is healed. It is how we, the human race, have gotten this far, and there is no substitute for it.
Do not be deceived by the anemic, illusory productivity of the computer age, with its glittering, addictive validation game. Don’t let the feeling of triumph at another follower or another instagram like or a clever tweet cloud your vision: anyone can do that. It keeps you busy, running, robbing you of your attention span, castrating your capacity for focus. This is why, if we have any hope of going deep and therefore finding solutions to our personal and global puzzles, we must first go back to step one: drain the shallows.
If we are not running on the perpetual hamster wheel of distraction, than what are we doing? We practice, moment by moment, and as consistently as we are able, mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the choice to return to the present moment, regardless of what is going on in your head. As I teach every week in my yoga and meditation class, mindfulness can be summed up in two words: notice, return.
We notice our feelings, thoughts, and distractions without judgment, and then, without pushing them away or embracing them, we return to a central focal point: the breath, or the present moment, or a physical sensation.
Moment to moment mindfulness is really only possible if we have a specific mindfulness practice: meditation or yoga. Like a physical exercise, the strength and focus this gives us starts to permeate the rest of our lives.
Mindfulness keeps our minds awake so that, when we need them to focus in times of need, they are there. Our mind is, at the end of the day, the only thing we have, and we need it with us, present, to guide us like a good friend.
Show yourself grace
Honing our focus, our practices, our capacity for deep work – this is hard, and we will fail. We will have days or weeks or months when we fall off the wagon, or we feel overwhelmed. Just because I am dedicated to these skills does not mean I execute them perfectly or with total regularity. I must show myself grace when I do, and keep walking towards the mountain.
I keep walking towards the mountain because I now understand that what is good for me is good for the world – that this is not just a self-improvement game, but also about changing the world for the better. I want to make an impact, I want to see the world flourish, and I want to live a good life. That desire requires grace for times when I fail, because it ultimately isn’t about me. I can’t afford to languish in self-loathing: there is nothing more sabotaging, more self-indulgent, more thwarting to myself and the world than a withering self-pity.
Read. A Lot.
So where do we start? We read, a lot. (or, if you struggle with focus, audiobooks work just as well.) Reading is enjoyable (I’m convinced of this, no matter how much you may protest,) and it strengthens neural flexibility. Reading is our greatest tool to moving forward, finding joy, and creating meaning. It gives us the raw tools to change the world.
Here are a few helpful places to start, giving practical ways to utilize the tools above:
Deep Work by Cal Newport
Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach
The Sacrament of the Present Moment by Jean-Pierre de Caussade
Quiet by Susan Cain
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg