Here we are, the primary primate. In holding onto the top spot, we have managed to wipe out a thousand species in the past century. Stretch this out across around two hundred thousand years and we are shown to excel in annihilation. This rate of extinction does not bode well for us when you look at our own track record on human extermination.
There are now 7.6 billion of us, almost identical in evolutionary design and function, but we seem to disagree about a great deal, and agree about very little. In spite of our infinite disagreements we have become highly efficient at keeping ourselves alive for longer, even as we find ever new ways of destroying each other with increasingly clinical efficiency.
As as it is when staring at the sun, or thinking about death, our human capacity for destruction is probably best considered from time to time for brief but lucid moments.
A short, close look highlights one aspect of our human nature that does unite us. Our battleground of differences, of thinking and thought does unite in one shared trait—we are all highly distractible. It makes no difference where we were born, our gender, conditioning, education or abilities, we all very good at distraction. Some of us are utterly brilliant at it. And some of us have gone to great lengths to shore ourselves about against this equal-opportunities aspect of our nature. Zen masters, snipers, and surgeons are amongst those who have found ways to de-programme themselves from this capacity for distraction.
I need to be very precise here because the Oxford English Dictionary definition of distraction is: ‘A thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else’. The nature of distraction does a great deal more than preventing us from concentrating on ‘something else’. It prevents us from concentrating on our lives.
There is a simple way of looking at this, through the Laws of Existence. We spend much of this very existence fighting it out in the life of the mind between two of these laws, the Law of Attraction and the Law of Distraction.
The Law of Attraction
The Law of Attraction is this: our lifetime is a continuous expenditure of energy from the moment we are born to the moment we die. What defines us is how we expend this energy. The Law of Attraction draws us powerfully towards something or someone. We channel energy to bring it into our lives. The more energy we expend, the more we draw this subject or entity towards us.
Take a child who sits with their nose pressed against the window, watching squirrels in the garden. Most of us might just see nut hunters scooting about with bushy tails. Yet to this child there is perhaps something else, a fascination about how the squirrels manage when they are weak or diseased. This squirrel fascination may translate into biology at school, and then on, to medicine and medical school with a focus on, say, genetic disorders. By the time this squirrel-fancier is in their mid-thirties around 80% of their life has been spent pursuing this ‘attraction’. It dictates the majority of their waking life, the jobs that they will get, and where they will live. It is their focus and indeed their meaning and purpose.
Take this single focused young medical practitioner, perhaps at twenty-five, right in the heat of med school. Another ‘attraction’, the very thing they have been studying, a human, grabs their attention. Except that they do not want to study this human for disease aetiology. They just want to spend time just flopping around with them. Now there are two ‘attractions’ driving this young doctor-in-the making. Life is jammed full, there is no space for anything else.
Except that there is.
The Law of Distraction
The Law of Distraction does everything in its power to drag that driving focus away from doctoring and romancing, or whatever it is that we are trying to focus on in our search for purpose and meaning.
The Law of Distraction is designed to win when it comes to stealing our attention. Any kind of digitally-delivered message that flashes in, someone asking you something, an advertisement, hearing a song that triggers a memory waterfall, anything and everything, have an extraordinary capacity to drag us away from the principal things that we know we should be focusing on.
Why is it so powerful?
Evolution—we are designed to be infinitely distractible.
Rinsing it down, there to the two things with the greatest powers of distraction: anything that presents itself as a threat, or as a source of pleasure, is going to grab our attention.
Perhaps you step out into the road, daydreaming about the week-end ahead, or worrying about something. Suddenly a bus looms, at speed. This is highly distracting. Fight or flight takes over and your every system flips into overdrive to get you out of the way of the bus. It is the same reaction when the threat is less direct. Take something like getting a message that you were not expecting, asking you to go and see the boss, your professor, or anyone else who seems to have power over your immediate future. If you were not expecting the meeting the strong tendency is to view it as a potential threat. Whatever you were doing is forgotten and a rapid assessment follows as to the why, what, and how bad this possible threat may prove to be.
In the aftermath of either of these scenarios, the bus or the boss, getting rid of the excess threat response is a potent way of cutting through the distracted state. Something like bouncing, as described in the previous blog [Bouncing—not as babyish as it sounds…] works very well.
The distracting pleasure principle is just as greedy when it comes to gobbling attention. The fancy name for this is the dopaminergic response. The key is in the name. Anything with the anticipatory promise of pleasure is being driven by a dopamine hit, a reward-seeking message being sent by this busy neurotransmitter in the brain. Whether you are being distracted by the deep desire for a Red Velvet cupcake, or a longing to lay down too much money on a horse called Calamity, dopamine gets the blame laid at its door. It is simply a messenger, sending its powerful message that we must pay attention to the possible pleasure ahead.
The Law of Attraction versus The Law Distraction
So here is our human challenge—the Law of Attraction versus the Law of Distraction, or determined attention versus the total lack of focus and productivity when we are distracted.
How much does it help to know that we are distractible by natural design? Does the knowing allow us to ask ourselves, on a very individual basis, what it is that we are being distracted from and why? Are we able to recognise the moment that we are being distracted, and either ignore it, or go along with it, knowing that we will lose our main thread for as long as we are being distracted?
In knowing ourselves, with clear self-awareness, we gain a profound understanding of what it is that gives distraction such free rein. Subtle self-awareness means that we can tell whether we are easily distracted because of an underlying factor, perhaps the fear of failure, a lack of confidence, a battle with sustained concentration, or anything else from across the wild gamut of personal anxieties that can make us doubt ourselves.
There is a simple test. The next time you are trying to settle to focus on something that you have been drawn to strongly by the Law of Attraction, see if you can catch the exact moment when you become distracted by the first flash from your phone, by a sudden burning desire to do the washing up, answer an overdue email, or anything else from the vast box of tricks that distraction has at its disposal. Take a step back by taking a slow, steady breath. Then pay very close attention to what it is really that is making you so easily distractible, beyond the aspect of our universal design.
The answer may be very interesting.