How to Stay Focused in A World of Distractions
MyLife Essay Contest 2018
Is it possible to find focus, to find your place of calm amidst a distracting outside world? Amidst the subway commutes, incessant billboards and advertisements, or even the numerous thoughts that are pressing so very loudly inside your head? Focus is one of the subtle things we don’t realize how much we desperately need, but that has tremendous value in our life. Having a focal point is what helps one accomplish all goals and aspirations. It is what gives one the ability to choose a professional path, or decide what hobbies or creative outlets to follow. Yet it is this exact trait, which requires so much precision, that many lack in today’s day and age. In an era of heightened technological advancement that allows us to be in more than one place at once, we are on the one hand girded with opportunity for maximum efficiency, but on the other hand drowning in ADHD. A millennial today can easily be found eating an egg sandwich while shooting a coworker an email, speaking to a potential hire, sitting in a weekly powwow meeting, all while dreaming up new existential worries and aspirations. Sound familiar? Sound crazy? Many weeks can go by, packed with important work, that still leave one feeling no actual end goals were accomplished. Weeks of constant email and phone tag, and the endless waiting for all the pieces in a shared puzzle to come together. While embracing the societal progression of time, how do we stay focused in this new paradigm that is so drastically different from a slower paced agrarian culture? How do we hone the skill of attentiveness in a world that is shouting at us through Whatsapps and Facebook notifications?
In order to provide some possible solutions to how one can achieve focus, we will look at two Chassidic works, Torat Shalom, a book of recorded talks by the Fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn, and the Discourse Mayim Rabim by the Seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.
INTROSPECTION (PNIMIYUT): UNDERSTANDING HOW THIS GIVES US FOCUS
Introspection is not a buzz word we tend to hear these days. Society largely stigmatizes those who seek to be alone. School classes encourage collaboration and group projects, advertisements highlight their product’s success through popularity (numbers define quality), Social Media glorifies those that have thousands of friends even if they aren’t real life “friends.” And to an extent beyond obvious socialization, human beings are socially programmed. Many times a specific atmosphere or social setting creates a mood, and one becomes deeply influenced by the person one is with as opposed to the experience itself . We are willing, for example, to accompany a friend to a meditation since we love this friend, or give charity because others around us do so. But it is rare for someone to embrace a set of ethics without outside influence. While social interaction is in no way a negative attribute, in a world that is so captivated by external impressions, inner drive to fulfill a task can become devalued. The overarching desire then becomes the need for human interaction, as opposed to simply carrying out that responsibility. The Rebbe Rashab explains in regards to Torah and Mitzvot, that when truth is influenced by socialization, it produces a chitzoni, or superficial level of divine worship. He elaborates on this idea by providing a psychological archetype. People tend to see the world as comprised of three main categories: 1. things that interest a person, 2. things that don’t but directly affect a person, 3. and things that one is completely indifferent to. As inherently pleasure-seeking beings, we tend to interact with the first two, ignoring people or circumstances that we don’t really care about. We do because others do, or because we find it personally provoking. But how many of us are able to say we perform mechanical tasks because it is the right thing to do? Because we inherently believe in its intrinsic value even when it is not uplifting? This is what the Rebbe Rashab refers to as Pnimiyut, loosely translated as introspection . Introspection is about listening to innate truth, independent of cultural or social standards. We don’t give charity because our friends do it too, or because we are surrounded by those who uphold similar ideals. We do it because it is right. Period. Even in times when we can become like a “rose amongst thorns,” surrounded by those who have differing beliefs, we remain committed and concentrated on our unvarying principles. When one is able to recognize this power of inward examination and conviction outside of social pressures, one begins the first step in achieving focus.
A person’s instinctual desire to fulfill a mitzvah due to social or atmospheric pressures is only skin deep. The goal is to achieve a level of Pnimiyut, or rather introspection by noticing the habitual practices in life that one chooses to do because of socialization, and separating them from their social stimulus. By carving away the social layer, and recognizing truth in its raw form, one can begin to re-center, seeing the responsibility for what it essentially is.
RECOGNIZING THE SPARK – ALLOWING THIS TO BE OUR GUIDE TO FOCUS
There is a well-known verse from Song of Songs that states, “Many waters [nations] cannot extinguish [eliminate] the love [that the Jewish people have for Hashem], nor can rivers [the princes and kings of the other nations] wash it away.”
The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that a deeper understanding of this beautifully poetic stanza is that these “many waters that cannot extinguish the love, nor can rivers wash it away” is a metaphor for man’s struggle for financial stability, and the reassuring assertion that even this consuming struggle cannot completely consume us. Often we find ourselves trapped among the raging waves of our frustration and inner conflicts, finding it difficult to rise above our absorbing material concerns. At first glance, it may seem that someone in this state is hopelessly lost in their worries and lust for financial success, that there is no cognitive or emotional space for a spiritual paradigm. However, the Rebbe goes on to explain when one takes a look with a deeper lens, one realizes that the “many waters” are not only unable to extinguish one’s spiritual fervor, but can even intensify one’s love towards G-d. But how is this translated from a metaphysical truth into a practical alleviation of worry in a person’s material pursuits? The Torah itself recounts events of our forefathers who underwent similar struggles such as Jacob in Parshat Noach, where it states, “And Jacob journeyed to his way”, implying that he had left the spiritual oasis and “journeyed” into the world of the mundane, and lowly affairs. Chassidic thought affirms that when a person realizes that G-d’s will is the source of all tasks in one’s life, and by extension every moment and action is divinely decreed, then one can not only find calm in carrying out this responsibility, but can also find comfort and inspiration. When one is aware of how immanent this very moment is, stripped of its chaotic multiplicity, it is no longer an insurmountable chore. It becomes a building block toward a desired goal. Once the task is clearly linked to its divine source and purpose, one rediscovers a sense of determination and intent to see it to fruition. And this invokes pure, unadulterated joy.
STEPS TO SUCCESS AND CHANGE
Step 1: Pnimiyut –What it’s Not
Fixation on social and cultural pressures, which can lead to a disingenuous fulfillment of Torah & Mitzvot.
Separate yourself from those around you. What do you do because they do it? Make a list of a few things, and draft a plan for becoming more conscious of your choice-making patterns.
Step 2: Pniymiyot – What It Is
Pnimiyut is when one is able to grasp the divine energy that lies at the source of all truth, devoid of socio-emotional and humanistic wrappings. To see the truth of G-d for what it is.
Find your inward focus, and ask yourself: What things do I know are timelessly true outside of what others tell me, or what feelings I add to a situation?
Step 3: Hone The Spark
When one becomes cognizant of this divine truth, one can begin to disseminate that level of concentration to all areas of life, from which this one truth stems.
Contemplate the power of this truth, and feel its weight in your life. Create a mantra: I believe that this alone will move me to where I need to go. This alone is my focal point.
Step 4: Get Inspired!
Once there is an understanding of how even this minute task is prevalent, one can overcome feelings of anxiety, replacing it with positive motivation.
Meditate on the power this task has to bring you to your goal. Think of ways that this gratitude can inspire you to work more diligently in this area of your life.
HOW CAN THIS IDEA CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES?
There is a beautiful passage in the Torah, where G-d compares the Jewish people to a tree, saying, “Man is (compared to) the tree of the field.” Chassidut seeks to understand this perplexing parallel by using the tree’s physical parts to explain its spiritual significance. The roots of the tree signify a person’s cultivation of “roots,” namely one’s commitment and faith in G-d, which eventually leads to the production of fruit – Torah and Mitzvot. But it is interesting to note that the roots, which lay the entire foundation for the sturdiness of the tree, are hidden beneath the ground. This is symbolic of faith, though undetected by the human eye, is of vital importance. Often times, the most important aspects of life are underrated, and we give little credence to their magnitude. Focus is a trait with immeasurable power in our day to day lives, but that is rarely given tribute for it. It’s what gives us the grit to finish assignments, the stamina to learn new tricks or develop new hobbies, the courtesy to listen to a friend in need, the power to achieve whatever our life’s mission may be. When one delves into his/her place of ultimate focus which is rooted in divine wisdom, one grows in understanding and maturation , and is better able to navigate chaotic thoughts and circumstances.
THE TAKEAWAY MESSAGE
When we find focus, we find resolve. We find inner turmoil and conflicts fall by the wayside as goals find an ability to forge forward, now freed from the bounds of anxiety and psychological havoc. We are free to create, communicate, love, without that little voice posing another possibility, another future that we have not lived. But that life doesn’t matter, because we are not that life. We are this moment, right here. There is nothing that needs us more than this moment, this person before whom we stand, this paper that is waiting for us to write it.