(Roughly) Daily

“At times the whole world seems to be in conspiracy to importune you with emphatic trifles”*…

 

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Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.

Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing. John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment – let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration.

That was in the late 420s. If John Cassian had seen a smartphone, he’d have forecasted our cognitive crisis in a heartbeat…

And he’d have had helpful hints– “How to reduce digital distractions: advice from medieval monks.”

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we focus on focusing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1960, at the Sullivan Street Playhouse, a small Off-Broadway theater in New York City’s Greenwich Village, that The Fantasticks premiered.  A musical by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, based on the play The Romancers (Les Romanesques) by Edmond Rostand (who wrote the rather better known Cyrano de Bergerac), it ran for a total of 42 years (until 2002) and 17,162 performances, making it the world’s longest-running musical.

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Original Off-Broadway cast album cover

source

 

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