I just finished a book of writings and teachings of the Dalai Lama. It's not something you should or can read in an environment filled with distraction.
One night I sat up in my studio reading in the quiet of the evening. I thought as deeply as I can about what he was saying and thinking about how to incorporate his teachings into my life. After a few hours of this, I was feeling very centered and peaceful.
I descended the stairs to the bedroom level of the house and was immediately confronted by the television my wife was watching. At many decibels, I was confronted by a Pillsbury Doughboy mindlessly dancing to a Shirley Temple song.
That derailed me.
Derailing is a violent act that grips your brain and pulls it from one track or focus of your choosing and shoves it onto one of someone else's choosing. The juxtaposition, the volume, and the sheer inanity of the message derailed me.
Sometimes derailing can be good. Babies focused on one thing they cannot have will tantrum, parents will then derail the baby by shaking a rattle or calling their attention to something else. Teachers noticing their students wafting off into their own thoughts will pull them back into focus.
I had the opportunity at IDEA 2006 to see Linda Stone's most recent rev of her Continuous Partial Attention speech. One of her key elements is to not use any visual aids which, in theory, means people will only focus on the words.
Her key point is that, in an effort to keep abreast of all possible opportunities, we don't focus on one item exclusively for very long, if at all. This is, in effect, our derailing of ourselves.
My old dog Cookie loved to eat. As kids we'd throw her food and she'd catch it and eat it. One night I had great fun tossing her a Cocoa Puff and she would catch it and eat it. Then I'd throw a whole handful of Cocoa Puffs and she'd try to catch them all and not catch anything. Her eyes would get big, her mouth would be open and she'd sort of have a fit trying to figure out how to catch them all.
There were so many opportunities of equal value coming at her so fast, she never completed the decision making process before all the opportunities were gone. If she'd focused on one Cocoa Puff, she'd have been fine.
It was really funny to watch.
It was pretty mean.
It derailed her.
In the case of the teacher or parent, derailing is a compassionate act aimed to help achieve proper focus.
In the case of my run-in with the Shirley Temple loving Doughboy, that derailing was entirely external and erased the focus I had achieved.
Under Continuous Partial Attention, people are so distracted by the choices they've given themselves, they never get that focus to begin with.
It is nearly impossible for us to control our environment these days. We'll always have e-mails or phone calls or Metrosexual Pop'n'Fresh Doughboys at 110 db. Linda's point is that we need to consciously choose the level to which we will allow ourselves to be distracted.
Without focus, we are always in a reactive mode. Pillsbury wants me always in a reactive mode. Too frenzied to make my own bread or to buy it fresh. To spazzed about Cocoa Puffs to think straight.
Without choices, we limit our potential growth. We will not actualize. We will stagnate.
In that book, the Dalai Lama said:
Our mind, as it is now, is completely scattered to external objects, due to which it is powerless. Our thought is like water running in every direction. But just as water, when channelized, becomes powerful, so it is with our minds.
Written with Windows Live Writer at My Place in Seattle.