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The Spiritual Pitfalls of Wandering Thoughts and Streaming Music

March 8, 2017


I have to admit, when it comes to doing menial and repetitive tasks I tend to look for distractions to temper the burden. For instance, when I work out at the gym or clean my bathroom, I insist on doing these things with the aid of one of my custom playlists. I do this because I get bored. Really bored. If I could, I would listen to music or a Podcast whenever I did any routine or mindless task: rooting out weeds from a yard, folding laundry into uneven squares, washing myself with soap in the shower. I find focused repetition boring and dull. I still manage to get these tasks done — otherwise I wouldn’t be a functioning adult — but when I do them I’m usually distracted. If it’s not music, then in my head I’m trying to solve a problem related to my work or replaying a conversation from earlier that day — usually while doing something mundane like checking for cracked eggs in a carton at the grocery store.

I’ve gotten much better over the years, and now I make it a discipline to do certain things without the relief of external or internal stimulation. I have to make sure I’m intentional about living in the moment—in its total and unflattering fullness—as much as I can.

The more I’m able to do this, though, the more I’m able to find a sense of calm. It can even become meditative. I find that I’m genuinely happier the more I live in the moment as opposed to outside of it.

This is hardly surprising, at least according to the research. In a Ted Talk given by Matt Killingsworth he explains how he used an app, “Track Your Happiness,” to gather data that revealed some interesting conclusions. According to Killingsworth, we’re often happiest when we’re living in the moment. And the more our mind wanders, the less happy we tend to be.

This isn’t particularly revelatory and I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth remembering. When our mind does wander, it often ambles to places fraught with fear and anxiety. Instead of enjoying my mug of coffee at my desk, I’m wondering what my boss would think if the project I’m managing implodes because of my gross incompetence. Jesus offered some advice about this when he told us to take a lesson from the birds and flowers — to stop worrying about the future and trust in God.

But it’s worth reminding ourselves of this because it’s one thing to know it, and another thing to do something about it. Plus, it’s really hard to keep our mind focused on the present moment.

“My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened.” – Michel de Montaigne

I love that quote. Who hasn’t weathered a litany of unfathomable terrors? The loss of jobs or relationships? Cataclysmic events or painstaking humiliations? And all of these things due to the the unruly circus of thoughts cycling within our heads?

Why do we dislocate ourselves from reality? Is it because most of our lives are uneventful and insipid? Is it because worrying is the only way to solve all of life’s countless problems?

I’m not exactly sure, but I can venture a few guesses.

I think part of it is because we’ve grown addicted to stimulation. Generations before us didn’t have TV or streaming music or amusement parks. But we do. We have access to a jackpot of stimulation through visceral entertainment, delectable food and drink, sensational news, exotic travel opportunities and so on. This relentless stimulation doesn’t allow us the space to accept, with humility, the ordinariness of our lives. And I don’t use the term “ordinariness” pejoratively. In the ordinary is where we come to experience God in our lives most of the time: a refreshing breeze against our skin, a break of sunlight through a stretch of clouds, a sip of properly poured Guinness. With those simple pleasures God reminds us that it is good to be alive. Very good. And as we are reminded of this, gratitude becomes our natural response — a response that always leads to joy. 

I think we tend to distract ourselves also because we’re afraid of the silence of our souls. When I tuck away the iPhone, switch off Spotify and shut my laptop, I’m left with the most frightening companion of all — the walled company of myself. And that can be difficult for us to endure, at least at first. But as we push past the discomfort and allow silence and a focused attention to our present occupy our lives we grow accustomed to the longing within our souls for something else — something that can’t be satiated by music or entertainment or even people. And this longing reminds us that we are merely pilgrims on our way toward our real home with God. It reminds us we are poor in spirit, and that we are blessed because of it.

Finally, I believe we fear the responsibility that living presently demands. When we are present to the moment at hand and not distracted, we are able to see those around us. And by seeing others, we may be asked to enter into the messiness of their lives. If we are lost in our thoughts or streaming music, then we don’t notice the lonely woman next to us on the subway or the disaffected teenager walking past us on the sidewalk. If we don’t see, we don’t act.

A recent New Yorker article, “Headphones Everywhere,” takes a fascinating look at how many of us use headphones to create a personal and uninterrupted space for ourselves. Headphones can, especially when in public, displace the obligation to interact with others.

“Certainly, headphones are an obvious method of exercising autonomy, control—choosing what you’ll hear and when, rather than gamely enduring whatever the environment might inflict upon you. In that way, they are defensive; users insist upon privacy (you can’t hear what I hear, and I can’t hear you) in otherwise lawless and unpredictable spaces. Should we think of headphones, then, as just another emblem of catastrophic social decline, a tool that edges us even deeper into narcissism, solipsism, vast unsociability? Another signifier of that most plainly American ideology: independence at any cost?” 

When it comes to all of the distractions we have at our ready—headphones, iPhones, wandering thoughts—moderation is always a safe bet forward, that temperate blend of pleasure and discipline. These things are goods that can and do serve us, yet it’s important to allow space for the unhindered experience of our present moment. If we can get better—even in small ways—at opting for attention over distraction and presence over interference, then we might come to experience the joy of God more fully in our lives.