I was catching up on back-episodes of 60 Minutes last night (required viewing for all nerds to maintain their credentials) when I came across a segment I immediately found suspect. It was about these “mindfulness coaches” who were being brought into all of these high-powered companies to teach people how to sit, breathe and, yes, walk.
But these CEOs at the likes of Google and other tech giants insist that these guys are adding efficiency to their workforce, as well as job (and even overall life) satisfaction for their employees. The idea is that we’ve become so conditioned to constant distraction and thinking about anything other than the present moment that entire days will go by without us actually being in our own life.
“You plan and think ahead to the next thing, and then the next,” says one mindfulness coach, “and then what? Eventually you get to the end of life and all you’ve experienced is this long sequence of moments of anticipating and planning…and then you’re dead.”
Well, when you put it that way, it’s a little depressing.
As I’ve mentioned in some other recent posts, I’m starting an ew project in the coming year in which I spend twelve months really trying to figure out what it means to follow Jesus, here and now, in our world today. A lot of us claim Christianity, or even would agree that we are “disciples of Jesus,” without ever really spending much time considering – let alone putting into practice – what that actually means. I do it too, and I figured at age 43, with several decades of claiming a certain life path that I should actually be a little bit more intentional about understanding what I’m committing myself to.
Now, in all fairness to us modern folks, Jesus didn’t have some of the demands on his attention we have to contend with today. For much – if not all – of his life, he didn’t travel more than about 100 miles from his birthplace. He had no iPhone, constantly pinging in his pocket. He wasn’t subjected to between 3,000 and 20,000 ad messages each day (estimates for the “average American today). He didn’t have fourteen email accounts, two-point-five kids, a wife, a mortgage, student loans, ISIS, ebola, North Korea and climate change knocking on his attentional door.
Yeah, he had leprosy, no money, a nation of persecuted citizens and the constant threat of assassination looming over him, but…keeping up with Twitter, Facebook and Instagram is seriously stressful!
In all seriousness, I’ve tried to boil down what seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ day-to-day ministry, especially those parts that I can most likely emulate. It seems to me that you can break down his daily practice in the social world into a few simple steps:
- Care (practice compassion)
- Notice (practice presence and mindfulness)
- Respond (practice reaching out in love)
- Repeat (practice renewal)
When I look at my own life in this way, I realize that I’ve done pretty well with steps one and three, while largely ignoring the other two. But in reality, all of the compassion and all of the social-justice-mindedness in the world does no one any good if I’m mired in a state of constant distraction. And when it’s considered at a fundamental biological level, our lack of presence feeds an addiction to immediacy (way different than presence) which leaves us wrong out and exhausted by day’s end.
So much for renewal.
I decided to work on this mindfulness thing for just a little bit this morning while my kids were bouncing off of every solid surface in an attempt to get ready for school, and I stuffed fruits and vegetables into the juicer in my daily attempt to send my progeny off to class with a bit of real nutrition in their bellies. So just while I was making their hippie-dippie smoothies, I resolved not to check my phone, which begins nagging for my attention the very second I wake up every day.
The first ten seconds were a breeze. What, no medal for attention in ten-second increments? But then the impinging crept in. First, there was the sound of one text coming in…then another…and then an email message…then a third text. All of this, in the span of no more than one minute. And I could sense my mind wandering to the chirping device in my pocket.
Umm, you gonna check that?
Okayyy, there’s another one. Might be important.
HEY ASSHOLE, CHECK YOUR FREAKIN’ PHONE ALREADY!
I know, it’s hostile territory up there in my brain. He’s a real taskmaster.
What to do? I just kept telling myself: make the smoothie, make the smoothie. I mean REALLY make the smoothie, man. Think about what you’re putting in there, where it came from, who planted the seeds, tended the crops…
Another text message. I’m hopeless.
I knew if I took the phone out to turn of the ringer I’d check it, like some automaton Pavlovian finger puppet. The bell rings; I slobber. Have I really been reduced to this? Have I honestly lost the ability to be in the moment long enough to make some breakfast?
Clearly it was going to take an act – or several acts – of will to clear the headspace to be present. I’d have to plan it out, leave my phone out of sight and mind, tell my brain that this time and space was solely dedicated to really making the shit out of a smoothie.
If only I had a mindfulness coach.
So yeah, I’m no expert after one morning, though I did successfully make it all the way to the kitchen table without checking my messages (celebrate small victories, I say). Clearly this is going to take a lot more practice. Good thing I gave myself more than a year to try and figure out this whole “following Jesus” thing. But one final thought from the 60 Minutes piece really stood out to me.
“If mindfulness is going to end up just being one more obligatory to-do on your growing list of demands for your attention,” says the coach, “don’t bother. It’s an entirely different way of engaging your life and the world, not just one more distraction to be dealt with quickly and then shoved aside for the next thing.”
Touche, mindfulness coach. We’ll meet again.