This morning while doing a leg workout at the Vaughn Center, I pulled out my phone between sets for who knows what reason. And I thought: What the hell? Can’t I get through five minutes of working out without checking my phone?
Here’s the concern: I’ve never had the world’s most devoted attention span. During school I had trouble concentrating if the subject didn’t interest me. These days experts might call it a condition on the order of ADHD. Teachers back then called it various things, but “distracted” comes to mind.
A life of distraction
So much of life is built around distraction. For example, the NFL is short-attention-span theater. It’s like brain food for the terminally numb. Violence and sex, bright colors and shiny helmets. Blathering announcers and crowd noise like an electric vacuum left on for four hours. And it sells.
The same can be said for so much of what constitutes ‘politics’ these days. If a president or Congressman wants to avoid responsibility for their actions or hide some bill or executive order from the public, they know that it works to pump up some other distracting issue to take the public’s mind off what is actually going on. Issues such as abortion and war work best, but so do sex scandals and terror alerts. Everything is about distracting the public from the rational workings of the inner mind.
But this is a problem when it becomes a game in your own mind to concentrate on what you need to do. If doing even basic things like weight work requires a distraction to get you through, there might be a problem going on.
The online version of Psychology Today points out in a 2012 article that studies show a chemical response going on inside our brains whenever we use our smartphones. As the article points out:
“You may have heard that dopamine controls the “pleasure” systems of the brain: that dopamine makes you feel enjoyment, pleasure, and therefore motivates you to seek out certain behaviors, such as food, sex, and drugs. Recent research is changing this view. Instead of dopamine causing you to experience pleasure, the latest research shows that dopamine causes seeking behavior. Dopamine causes you to want, desire, seek out, and search. It increases your general level of arousal and your goal-directed behavior.”
That passage reminds me of the Saul Bellow book Henderson The Rain King. The main character is a disillusioned soul who can’t figure out what he desires from the world. The Wikipedia summary of Henderson does a noble and succinct job of describing his lament: “Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged man. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out I want, I want, I want. Hoping to discover what the voice wants, Henderson goes to Africa.”
That’s what disillusioned people did before the Age of Distraction. They went places. Several times in my 20s I took off for places unknown with just a few bucks in my pocket and a voice much like Henderson’s ringing in my head. But mine spoke more along the lines of “What do I want? What do I want?”
Native Americans had methods of dealing with distracted thinking.
Young men participated in rituals such as the Sun Dance, in which participants were sent through a rigorous and painful test of mind and spirit. Men would pierce the flesh of their chests with sharp objects knotted into leather. Then they’d lean back to let the pain sear through their brain and see what kind of visions their brain chemicals would produce before someone cut them down and tossed them back in a tepee.
Modern Sun Dances
Those of us that participate in endurance events may be seeking a sanitized version of these seemingly barbaric practices. Yet we’re not so far away as we might think. Plenty of people these days are getting their bodies pierced or having painful tattoos seared onto their bodies. Are these markers of commitment or the scars of a struggle for existence?
Triathletes can testify that the Ironman experience itself is a rite of passage requiring intense concentration. And yet, at the same time, the event has been known to produce a state of total dissociation as well. Athletes live for that rite of passage at the finish line when the announcer calls out their name and proclaims, “You’re an Ironman!”
The only thing missing in that ritual is the assignment of some sort of Spirit Animal to guide Ironman athletes through the rest of their lives.
Some ultra distance runners readily admit to “out of body” experiences during 100-mile races. Extreme cyclists are also known to go into a state of hallucination during cross-country events. Surely long-distance swimmers lose themselves at some point during the trek across a large body of water. There may be nothing that so closely resembles a near-death experience than the most extreme forms of endurance training and racing.
Yet lacking these tests of endurance on an everyday basis, most of us opt instead for the quick fix and dopamine hit brought on by a glance at our cellphones. We check our Instagram and Facebook accounts to see how many Likes our posts have gotten. We share in the sorrows and joys of others as well. All these interactions hit our dopamine centers and draw our attention from consequential things to matters that may not be so important. We simply don’t want to be alone.
And there is a connectivity that comes with our distraction. Many people feel genuine empathy and a sense of community through their social media accounts.
But that connectivity can be addictive too. Our brains rewire themselves to expectations and stimulus quite easily. Our phones are just like a coffee or caffeine habit in that they are as much much emotive as they are chemical. We even eat ‘comfort food’ because it bears an association with feelings of well-being. That’s how we compensate for the tradeoffs in life. We put up with all sorts of difficulty and then bury our wounded hearts and bothered minds in things that make us feel good.
A few months ago while participating in a training seminar for work, the leader had u-s raise our hands if we think we’re good at multi-tasking. I raised mine of course, the only person in the room to do so. Then she had us all do an exercise with a single focus and then one with a multiple focus, and we all failed miserably. The point she was trying to make is that none of us can focus on more than one thing at a time. But I find that still hard to believe. If that was the case, the human race would never have evolved, and even Noah could not have built an ark, if that’s what you choose to believe.
Multi-tasking is a native part of being human. It is how our minds evolved. It is the painful oppression of a singular focus that actually causes so many problems in this world. There’s not a human being alive who thinks only of one thing at a time.
That does not mean categorizing and prioritizing the multiple distractions we face every day is not an important aspect of our existence. But to pretend that only one thing is going on at a time in the human mind is like believing in a literal bible. It insults the creative powers we’re all given to freely associate and assimilate information to produce a grander whole.
But there is great value in forcing our concentration through the keyhole of what unlocks our core thoughts and activities.
But think how good it actually feels to go through a bit of deprivation now and then. When your last water bottle runs out during a long bike ride, it takes real focus to get to the next water stop on the route. But you bite into the challenge. Make it yours. Own it. And when you make it through, there’s a quick sense of accomplishment. Hell, yeah.
Even when you’ve finished a tough workout and haven’t yet had time to eat, that intense hunger can actually make you feel real and alive.
It turns out that the urgency of existence when funneled through a portal of real effort feels much more satisfying to our normally fat-fed attention spans. A hard workout cleans your mental palate, wicks off random thoughts and rumination and can even cure depressed and anxious feelings.
Best of all, working out can give you clarity that adds up to the ability to find solutions. It can make you worry less about your attention span and find the path to focusing more on what really matters. In some strange way, a dose of deprivation and difficulty counts most of all, and you no longer have to worry about your attention span because you have other things more immediate and important to think about.