How do we regain control of our scattered minds and lives? How can we grab the reins of something as intangible as our minds and hearts? How can we focus our attention without focusing our attention on focusing our attention?
Words are thrown around constantly to describe the benefits of technological advances; efficiency, streamlining, logistics, communications, etc., etc., etc., how easy do these things really make our life?
In our culture we have our fair share of words to describe the people who do well in our yeshiva educational institutions and who are good at being frum. For example, we might hear, “this bocher has koch, a real passion for learning/davening,” “This boy is a real pnimi, he really gets it,” “He’s a chassidisher ba’al habos, he sits and land every night.” What makes one person more able to focus their attention more than someone else? Do I need to be smarter? Do some people just love learning and davening more?
In life we have a myriad of tasks that take up our time, energy and focus. Whether it be from trying to make a living, making kvius ittim laTorah (scheduled times for Torah study), or trying to daven and mean what we say.
Bochrim too are challenged both from within themselves and from without. Keeping a schedule, managing their sleep, navigating the seas of social pressures, both on a peer to peer level and within the hierarchy of an educational institution, dealing with emotional insecurities, literacy, etc., can be daunting.
Needless to say our phones buzzing, beeping, dinging and ringing under the banner of friends and family, pressuring us into attending to them— threatening to buzz again or self-destruct or worse —causing us to miss out on some hugely important message from our third cousin on the family group who happened to post the same thing on the grade group—can be a distraction.
I’m not writing this as a complaint against smartphones either. More on that later.
If you’re like me, you’ve probably told yourself, “Okay, I need to focus,” and as you’re reading the assigned material you find that you’re daydreaming about the importance of focus and what out means to focus, etc. Then you wonder if maybe some people just can’t focus, or perhaps intensive study isn’t your thing or maybe it’s the wrong subject, etc….
Some of us spend our days at cluttered desks with our cluttered minds and cluttered inboxes, with the weight of the world on our shoulders. When we daven, we speed read, mumble and pace, when we finish work we’re so tired it’s no use trying to learn… Sound familiar?
Yet, the key to being fully present on what we’re doing is to be fully present. When we’re at work, we’re meant to think about our work. When we’re listening to our spouse, we’re meant to be absorbed in what our spouse has to say. When we learn we’re meant to be focused on the material, trying to hear what the author is saying.
Light Work vs. Focus
What do laundry, dish washing, flossing and clearing out our inboxes have in common?
They all involve simple tasks made easier by technological advancement. Laundry is a low level skill that involves little if any attention. All that is required is that the hands be trained in the task and the mind is free to some degree to wander as long as it can be recruited from time to time for the task of sorting. The same goes for dish washing and clearing our inbox. These jobs are logistical in nature —they need to get done and are pretty simple to accomplish. Also, these jobs are dispensable–there’s no shortage of people who can wash and fold clothes or who can answer What’sApp messages.
In contrast, learning Torah requires a person’s full attention. Aside from the fact that “in this world G-d has only the four amos of halocha” (Brochos 8a)— Torah is full of dialectic and hair-splitting reasoning and at times, of the subtlest kind.
When we run around cleaning up around the house, make cold calls for our business, fundraising for our Chabad houses, we become mindless in a way. We can become so absorbed in using social media to promote our business/Chabad house/self that we forget about our cause and become absorbed in selling attractiveness itself. There is no use in being charismatic if we have nothing to show for it.
What gain is there in the whole city knowing that you have a Chabad house if you’ve forgotten the importance of davening and learning? More donors? What use is there in obsessing about our business if we come home drained and apathetic to spirituality? The more fragmented we become, the less we’re able to make our Chabad house/business a worthwhile investment. We spent all our time answering emails and making phone calls that our product has become a very beautiful but empty shell– a reflection of what we’ve become.
These tasks are means to an end.
Technology Has Its Place
Easy not equal to productive and busy does not equal to productive. Plenty of things have made our lives easier. For instance, the plow, when attached to an ox gave us the ability to make more food so we could have more time to think. It was after the first agricultural civilizations developed that G-d revealed Himself to Avrohom Avinu. It was only then that human beings such as Avrohom Avinu could afford the luxury of contemplation. The same goes for advancements in warfare technology. Bombs work better than guns work better than arrows work better than swords work better than stones work better than fists which means less people need to work at protecting us physically so more of us can have time to think. All of these advances where always and should always be treated as a means to an end.
Being busy with errands doesn’t mean that we’ve accomplished much.
The purpose of technology is to free us, not for us to become enslaved to our whims.