In the Kingdom of Infinite Distraction.
On the cost of not looking into the Abyss.
Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.
—Frederich Nietzsche. Beyond Good and Evil.
All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
—Blaise Pascal. The Pensées
Humankind cannot bear very much reality.
—T.S. Eliot. Four Quartets.
Over the past week, I have had the monastery pretty much to myself. Ah, the undeserved sweetness of getting to spend uninterrupted time in silence and solitude. My time in silent contemplation in stillness has been punctuated by taking meditative walks out into the serene beauty of the snowy wilderness. This is something I have longed for now for most of my adult life. This past week I have had ample time to sit silently in silence and stillness, and this is precisely what I have tried to do. Knowing full well that I might never have the opportunity to have a week like this again for the rest of my life.
Not so fast, Jack. As the week went on I found that I was continually trying to distract myself from the silence and solitude I claim to seek so intently. At one point, I even started watching a long series of short clips of stand-up comedy videos online, finding myself doing so with no real joy or even much laughter beyond a chuckle. And, worse yet, upon realizing this is what I was doing, I kept telling myself that I would watch “just one more” and then I would get on with the true work of my day. Many hours of the week were wasted in all sorts of similar ways.
Why is it so difficult to face myself?
I had come to the monastery six months ago for the explicit purpose of no longer avoiding myself through distraction. I came here to have the time to look at all that had not worked out for me in my life—of which over the years there has been no short supply—and, if possible, let those things go. To look into my own tendency to nihilism and despair. And more importantly, having been purged of these negative tendencies, to find a more intimate relationship with my own life, with others, with nature, and with the Divineon the other side of my own nothingness. For the most part, this is what I have done. It has been a path that has slowly begun to yield noticeable results. Admitting that at the same time, I know I have a long way to go..
Yet this week, when I had the opportunity to go deeper into silent prayer, something in me sought to disrupt that. I am, of course, unable to blame it on any external distractions because, well, there weren’t any. As much as I might wish it was otherwise, there has been no one else here to blame but myself.In my defense, I know I didn’t consciously decide to use my time poorly. At first, I was not completely sure what was driving this impulse to distraction—or what exactly it was trying to achieve. But no matter, because it is a truism of our virtual age: if you are seeking distraction there will be an abundance of it—even when completely alone at a remote monastery. And if you are really ambitious you will get so lost in it you will forget not only what you were running from but that you were even seeking distraction in the first place.
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When you give this even a moment’s thought, it is hardly surprising that human beings have developed sophisticated ways to protect themselves from harm. We would never have survived as long as we have without them. But it starts to get a bit more complicated when we consider this ability to so tenaciously protect ourselves from ourselves—to form barriers and disguises to protect us from the chaos of our own inner lives. It is even stranger still to see how difficult, even at times seemingly impossible, it is to make turn this off. This self-protection is so automatic, so deeply woven into the fabric of who we are in the world, that it is surprisingly difficult to see. We are unable to see it because it is our very way of seeing.
The kaleidoscopic rotation of masks we use to present ourselves as competent, rational, and ambitious in order to feel worthy of the love and esteem we desperately crave only keeps us from the love that is already available to us. The tangled maze of psychological stratagems we use to protect ourselves only keeps us in a false and shallow relationship with ourselves and those around us. The irony is that this psychological self-protection insulates us from insights into our own internal conflicts. And when effective,shield us from the very insights that we desperately need in order to be healed. This can go on for a lifetime.
The problem is, of course, that the path of engaging ourselves can be quite difficult and even painful. There is little joy in the realization of how broken one actually is, or just how much of what we do, think, and say is meant to protect ourselves from that knowledge. “Don’t look back,” warned baseball great Satchel Paige, “because something might be gaining on you”. The freedom to express our personality as we see fit—the true, unique, and irreplaceable self that we believe ourselves to be—is simply a strategy of protection against the world, both inner and outer. And since we are nothing other than completely surrounded by these worlds, and since something does seem to be gaining on us, it isn’t always clear how to respond.
Distraction is nothing other than a way to avoid, in the short term, the radical discomfort of the necessary spiritual growth beyond this predicament. Distraction is now a very normal way of negotiating life.We have built our civilization almost entirely upon its sandy foundation. We believe that the problem of life has been solved by abundance, so what more could you want? But this solution comes only at the cost of the same pain we have avoided in the short term increasing immeasurably in the long run. The pain increases because we are unwilling to face it and act as if it doesn't exist. In a limited sense, this endlessly deferred reckoning with ourselves does seem far more rational than facing it. But only if avoiding ourselves is our main goal.
This is exactly what I have been wrestling with over the past few months.And what I have spent my life wanting to find and keep hidden from myself all at the same time. This has had me running in circles. I have both claimed to see through the falsity of this situation and sought to live fully within its confines. To live outside the law, you must be honest.
We are communal beings and our own brokenness is not separate from the systems that have ensnared us and the people that have formed us. To think otherwise is to blind ourselves to the world around us and its influence. We are both the creators and products of our culture, victims, and victimizers—as troubling as this is to realize. What we glimpse in this, I suspect, is that despite all the marvels and benefits of our civilization—of which there are many—at the heart of it lies something that we would rather not know or see, in whole or in part, even if we actually do know it and do see it. In failing to see the world for what it is we fail to see ourselves for what we are. In not wanting to see ourselves we fail to see the world we have made.
The Kingdom of Distraction is within us.
I will propose a simple experiment for you to see what I am saying, not as a set of dubious claims, but from the inside of your own awareness.
First, Pascal again:
The only good thing for men therefore is to be diverted from thinking of what they are, either by some occupation which takes their mind off it, or by some novel and agreeable passion which keeps them busy, like gambling, hunting, some absorbing show, in short by what is called diversion...Thus men who are naturally conscious of what they are shun nothing so much as rest; they would do anything to be disturbed.
It is wrong then to blame them; they are not wrong to want excitement - if they only wanted it for the sake of diversion. The trouble is that they want it as though, once they had the things they seek, they could not fail to be truly happy. That is what justifies calling their search a vain one. All this shows that neither the critics nor the criticized understand man's real nature.
What I am proposing goes something like this:
Place a chair in a quiet, otherwise empty room. Arrange it so there will be no distractions, diversions, or interruptions. Sit there in silence and be still for an hour a day.
Reflect on what you experienced. Was it easy or difficult? Painful or pleasurable? Did you seem more or less yourself? Who are you, really?
Let’s call this the Pascal Challenge.
Looking at ourselves in this way is not unlike looking into an abyss. When we look long enough, as Nietzsche tells us, we will surely begin to meet the monsters hidden deep within us.These monsters are unavoidable. The mistake is to think these monsters must be fought and defeated or they will defeat us. Conversely, it is in fighting them that they always win. Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monsterIt is by gazing into the abyss and not turning away from the monsters we find there, that the Abyss gazes back into us. This will likely be a dark passage, but if we trust it, the monsters will begin to dissolve back into the nothingness from which they came.
We must be patient because it just might take a while.
Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend into heaven, You are there; If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there. If I take the wings of the morning, And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, Even there Your hand shall lead me, And Your right hand shall hold me. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,” Even the night shall be light about me; 12 Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You, But the night shines as the day; The darkness and the light are both alike to You. —Psalm 139:7-12
CHAPTER 10 Before the Word came into the world The Sages sought Him out in every place. They saw Him not, but sensed his presence everywhere. The found Him in living beings, in mountain crags and flowing streams, in seas and winds. He was not these things, But He spoke in these things, guiding them. All things followed His Course. Therefore the sages called Him also by His other name: The Way (Tao), The Course that all things are to follow. The trees, the birds, the rives and winds: These had no choice but to follow the Way. Man alone is given a choice; Man alone can follow or go his own way. If he follows the Way, he will suffer with the pain of the world, But He will find the Original Harmony. If he follows his own way, he will suffer only with himself, And within him will be chaos. —Christ the Eternal Tao. By Hieromonk Damascene.
Last week Brother A. found mountain lion tracks in the snow passing close by to the hermitage. So far I have seen deer, mountain sheep, and wild turkeys. There are bears, but they are probably hibernating by now.
I don’t think that these various relationships are ultimately different things. All can take place within the Divine. See 1 John 4:20.
The more that gets revealed in us tends, ironically, to show how much further we have to go than we had thought. It is as if one is getting closer to the goal even as the goal is further away. The more time spent on the path the longer the path becomes. This is humbling, to as the least. It is very easy to fool oneself and believe one is further along than one is. A tendency that must be constantly watched for.
This is one of the effects of silence and solitude. What might realistically though still false be blamed on others while living in society can no longer be maintained. Nobody’s fault but my own, try as I might. In looking for a scapegoat to blame there is only one candidate.
It might also mean that I am close to hitting on something within me I would rather not see. There does seem to be a resistance that grows the closer it comes to being resolved. It is an interesting dynamic.
Our unconscious strategies of self-protection are surprisingly effective and resilient. Elusive, even. And for anyone who has seriously sought to dismantle them, this has probably become a source of endless bafflement.
For most of human history, only the top of the ruling class had the option to distract themselves in this way. Pascal started talking explicitly about diversion in the 17th century. But it was still an elite experience. Look at us now.
To see this delusion play itself out in purely economic terms, please see the U.S. Debt Clock here.
Over my lifetime, really.
Absolutely Sweet Marie. By Bob Dylan. And once you can fully deceive yourself into thinking you are being honest, you’ve got it made.
I use the word system rather than the more usual community because I think that’s how we have learned to live.
Two half-hour sessions are probably best.
Any experience meditator will already know how this will go. It takes a long time for the mind to settle down. Often a very long time. I admit there are probably exceptions to this.
That has been my experience.
Resist not evil. —Matthew 5:39
Eventually, the Abyss which, at first, is so terrifying to us turns out to be nothing to fear. It is what we have been looking for all along. Though we can only travel this path within ourselves it is best not to travel this path alone. It is much better to have a guide, an elder, who is more experienced in this type of travel. It is far too easy to get lost. We also need companions on the way. We cannot do this alone. I can’t emphasize that enough.
Thank you for all these nurturing and calming thoughts; I'm not mad, then, to share the suspicion that I'm running on a program that's not really beneficial and that it is within my power to discover the patterns and let them go. I stopped my life some 15 years ago because l found it deeply mediocre on a soul level. Divorce, ended my career, sold the house etc. But l did it alone, l read, meditate and look at the sea on my own, a hermit living in a small town in England.
Reading your post, all was well, very well indeed, l felt connected to your thoughts until l came to the last few sentences; you cannot stare into the abyss alone. You need an elder to guide you. But what if there isn't anyone there for a one to one guidance? I have looked. Do YouTube Gurus count?
I'm not stopping staring into the Abyss no matter what, but perhaps l should take out an insurance?
Worried of Smalltown
I will join you in "Pascal's challenge."
This is the season of Advent, which encourages us to reflect on the second coming of Christ, so necessary to consider in this dark world. This is the season when believers ask, "Why so long, O Lord? When will the sorrow and misery cease for your children?"
I am a little surprised that your reflection on 'infinite distraction' does not include the third agency in this world, the power of evil, the Satan, the ruler of this world. In the New Testament, there are three entities or powers: God the creator of the world, the Enemy who controls this world today, and the human beings and creatures who find themselves held in captivity. We experience distraction because we battle spiritual forces arrayed against us. "For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. - Ephesians 6:12” It is only the power and love of God who defeats the forces of evil and gives us the mystical assurance of the Lord's presence, the FIRE Pascal experienced for two hours in 1654.
Thanks for writing and best wishes on sitting. I remember a poster in high school that said, "sometimes I sit and think, sometimes I just sit." It's taken me years to realize the second may be more valuable.