In the West we hold tenaciously to the view that thought is linear, that we start at A, proceed inevitably to B, and continue in that mode. Yet none of us experience it that way. With the best will in the world, we cannot hold our minds on such a strict rein. They are always straying from the path. Do we cling to the illusion of a direct path because we believe that progress is inevitable if we don’t allow ourselves to be distracted? We are such firm believers in step-by-step guides, even though none of us has managed to follow instructions in the right order. At any given moment a flood of thoughts clamors for our attention. Yet I have never managed to spot what enables one thought to triumph over all the others, nor what makes it cede its place to another random zealot.
The older I get the more resigned I am to the fact that I do not and cannot think straight, even though I probably have more tenacity than many people I know. Even my attempt to capture these thoughts and set them down on the page was interrupted by an urge to make a note of a phone call that must be made the day-after-tomorrow (I succumbed to this), a vague memory that there was ironing to do (I turned my metaphorical back on this one), a notion that this might be a really good moment to paint (when I’ve finished writing, maybe), and I had been sitting there only five minutes. My mind is a maelstrom.
I tried to observe what was going on in my mind so that I could unmask the enormous pull that happens each time I decide to devote myself completely to some activity. Even as short a time as two minutes into whatever it is, I usually look for ways to cut out and take care of something else. Not that I abandon what I am doing forever, but I don’t stick with it. My mind seeks to escape what it has told me it would like to do now. Any excuse will suffice. The message that seeps into my consciousness on this day is that the hood of the jacket I have just washed and hung in the bathroom might have slipped off the rail into the bath and so I ought to go and check up on it. I know full well that my underlying aim is to penetrate as deeply as possible into whatever is in front of me and that this is not going to happen if I keep behaving like a butterfly. What on earth is it that perpetuates such ridiculous behavior?
It is certainly not that I am incapable of long stretches of full attention. When I am occupied with something to do with my work, then I slog on for hours without a second thought. My devotion is complete when it is a question of doing something for another person but when it is for myself, it falters.
The phenomenon arises most often when I decide to do something that I associate with a practice of attention, such as writing or painting. A tussle ensues between the part of me that has decided to commit this period of time and attention to the task, and another part that seeks to deflect it to something insignificant that can easily be done later. I am determined to watch more closely and see if I can catch sight of what continually drags me away from the present. It has to be an old habit that I have been secretly nurturing all my life. Once I see what it is, I will have the chance to relinquish it.
From Caught in the Act