We like to blame technology as the reason for our distraction.
“If only we could put down our smartphones we could focus on the Bible, God, prayer…”
And if you try to think of a time where surely distractions were at a low, you might go back a few centuries to a time long before the modern distractions of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
But as one historian notes, even for medieval century monks, distraction was a constant struggle.
According to Jamie Kreiner, author and professor at the University of Georgia, distraction is not a new thing.
“Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentrating was their lifelong work!”
Kreiner has devoted a majority of her life to studying the time period and lifestyles of medieval monks and recently wrote about what they can teach us about facing our modern distractions.
People today seem to have this idea that the best time and place in history to focus on God without distraction must have been centuries ago living the scenic and slow life of a monk or nun.
But Kreiner says it’s just not so.
“Their tech was obviously different from ours. But their anxiety about distraction was not. They complained about being overloaded with information, and about how, even once you finally settled on something to read, it was easy to get bored and turn to something else.”
“John Cassian, whose thoughts about thinking influenced centuries of monks, knew this problem all too well. He complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions.’ It ‘wanders around like it were drunk.’”
And while we blame technology, the problem of distraction has been the brunt of excuses for as long as we have recorded history.
The monks had the same problems, just different things to blame: “Sometimes they accused demons of making their minds wander. Sometimes they blamed the body’s base instincts. But the mind was the root problem: it is an inherently jumpy thing,” explains Kreiner.
So even in the ideal time, place, and setting, distraction was a major problem and the monks had to fight against it.
As a result, they developed several strategies and techniques we might learn from today.
One tactic was “renunciation.”
According to Kreiner, “Monks and nuns were supposed to give up the things that most people loved – families, properties, businesses, day-to-day drama … to ensure that they wouldn’t be preoccupied by that stuff in their professional lives of prayer.”
Translated into modern language, it makes sense: “Cut back your commitments to serious stuff, and you’ll have fewer thoughts competing for your attention.”
Another strategy was to moderate the body’s desires. “Most Christians agreed that the body was a needy creature whose bottomless appetite for food, sex and comfort held back the mind from what mattered most.”
Abstinence from excess helped discipline the mind from being drawn to distraction by easy and oftentimes unfulfilling pleasures.
Many focus and productivity experts today focus on procrastination not as a planning or time management problem, but as an emotional problem.
The brain seeks immediate pleasure at the expense of work, even when that work will lead to long-term benefits, until the pressure of a deadline builds up to the point that the immediate pain of missing the deadline leads to a flurry of last-minute work.
Practicing the mental discipline of moderation and building the strength to resist the pull of immediate gratification offers a powerful way to fight distraction.
Another tactic used when memorization was the goal of focus was to create mnemonic visual aids connecting key concepts from scripture with visualizations.
Kreiner gives the examples of “a branchy tree or a finely feathered angel – or in the case of Hugh of St Victor (who wrote a vivid little guide to this strategy in the 12th century), a multilevel ark in the heart of the cosmos – could become the template for dividing complex material into an ordered system.”
“The images might closely correspond to the substance of an idea. Hugh, for example, imagined a column rising out of his ark that stood for the tree of life in paradise.”
“Nuns, monks, preachers and the people they educated were always encouraged to visualise the material they were processing.”
Ultimately, Kreiner recognizes a fundamental truth: “Distraction is an old problem, and so is the fantasy that it can be dodged once and for all. There were just as many exciting things to think about 1,600 years ago as there are now. Sometimes it boggled the mind.”
So if you’re struggling with distraction and not spending the time you would like focused on prayer, scripture, and your relationship with God, perhaps knowing that it isn’t just technology that’s to blame, but the universal nature of our fallen minds, might help.
And perhaps taking some pointers from the monks that struggled with the same thing can help you as well.