I was reaching for the pair of scissors in the broken-handled mug on my bedside table (my best desk scissors being missing from the drawer--ahem! Anna?), when I heard a voice.
Well, not really a voice. I heard the words, "What are you doing?"
Well, I didn't really hear them out loud, either. But I heard them clearly from within.
As clear as Elijah is said to have heard God's voice when he was hiding out in a cave feeling self-righteous and sorry for himself. "What are you doing here, Elijah?" he gets asked twice. I thought of that story mere seconds after I had asked myself that question.
What are you doing looking for scissors right now, when I thought you were sitting down to write?
Some days when I'm paying attention, I catch myself in the act of getting distracted--being drawn away from the task at hand toward something else. Sometimes toward some new, shinier task (the new possibilities nearly always appear more interesting than the present), sometimes toward . . . God only knows. Just away from what I'm doing.
It happens often when I'm in the midst of writing in my journal. I will suddenly find myself capping my fountain pen as if I had decided I was finished, when in fact just seconds before I was writing happily, perhaps even pursuing a new thread, and had no inkling I was ready to stop.
What's this about? I used to wonder.
Now I assume that there's some sort of unconscious "distract mode" that gets triggered for reasons that my conscious mind is not aware of. It happens so fast--it's not as if I am aware of any sort of consultation or deliberation going on inside.
I am writing away, and then, quite suddenly, I'm capping my pen.
Or opening my laptop to check my email or see what's happening on Facebook. Or . . . or . . . . The possibilities are nearly endless.
Occasionally it seems very clear that I've started to write about a topic that might feel a little murky or "dangerous" to my ever-watchful, self-protective ego. Some part of me doesn't want to go there, wherever there happens to be.
Other times I wonder if there's a more subtle form of self-sabotage at work: that this ever-watchful, self-protective part of me simply doesn't like it when I am on a roll and having a good time! Or when it seems that I might be getting somewhere that's going to take me in powerful new directions.
I remember many, many years ago hearing the Rev. Martin L. Smith, an Episcopal priest, retreat leader, author, spiritual director, and former monk, speak of the tendency of our egos to cut short our times of prayer just when we are getting to the heart of the matter. The same kind of pattern appears in all sorts of places in our lives.
With various practices of silent meditation (at which I generally consider myself a bona fide failure), one is counseled to respond to such distractions with compassion (i.e., don't make a big deal about it; don't assume this is a sign of moral weakness deserving shame and punishment). And then to return to the practice you were in the midst of, whether counting your breath, or repeating a mantra, or whatever.
It's not so different when I catch myself capping my pen, opening my laptop, or even getting up from my desk to go find a pair of scissors! The best thing I can do is simply go back to what I was doing before.
Return to my desk. Close the lid of my laptop. Uncap the pen again. Resume writing. And watch for the same thing happening again!
This may sound simple and small, but it feels like a large accomplishment to me. The whole sequence-- noticing, paying attention, recognizing what's going on, laughing gently at myself, returning to my writing-- is an accomplishment, and each of its component parts is one too.
And it all depends on noticing. On paying attention.
And while I may consider myself a failure at silent meditation, I do know how to notice things. For which I am very grateful.
Now, what was I in the midst of doing when I decided to write this post?
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