Inner  Frontier
Fourth Way Spiritual Practice


Inner Work

For the week of January 9, 2017

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Task Presence versus Distractions

(The Challenge of Presence 7)

We all know how it happens. We are working along on something, when suddenly a tangential thought or other distraction comes out of the blue. Without even noticing what is happening, we take off in a different direction, following the interloper wherever it leads us and leaving behind what we were working on. The result is lost productivity and time. We lose not just the time we were tangenting away into the universe of imagination, half-aware, but also the time it takes to fully return to the task. The latter includes reassembling the necessary inner machinery and context, putting that all back into our working memory.

This propensity to go off on inner tangents is even worse if we are multi-tasking. One of the multiple tasks may suddenly take over all our inner resources, and that task might not be the main one we were intending to accomplish. Or because each of the multiple tasks has less hold on us than a single task would, the multiple tasks are even more prone to disruption by distraction. Instead of multi-tasking, we could practice single-tasking, doing one thing at a time. That does improve the situation, but even so we remain vulnerable to distraction.

Presence can help. Without presence, distractions more easily steal our attention, inducing us to drop our task. Presence enables a greater focus on the task at hand. Not only is our attention stronger in presence, but even more importantly it is grounded, it has a root, a source, namely us, our I. In presence, I am my attention, I am behind and in my attention. I am where my attention is. This strong and rooted attention is less easily broken, diverted, or coopted.

Presence also enables more and broader self-awareness, so that we see what happens in our thoughts, we sense what our body is doing, we feel our task, and we notice the changes. In presence, we see the tangential thoughts in their moment and we are free to choose not to go with them. If we fail to notice the distractions as they arise, we have little freedom in front of them; they take us unawares. Presence defends us against distraction, making us more able to stay with what we choose and intend to do.

Nevertheless, attention does have its limits. When we engage in a protracted task session, we come to a point where our energy dissipates and our attention weakens, making us more vulnerable to the allure of distractions. When we recognize this occurring we could redouble our effort, bringing more energy to bear, or we could simply take a break to let our energy for attention replenish itself.

Distractions not only delay or completely derail the completion of our task, but they also can delay or even prevent us from starting the task. That looks like procrastination: doing something else first. This particularly takes hold of us if the task, as so many are, is one we would rather not do, but still necessary. Presence helps us set aside our preferences in the face of necessity. We just do what needs doing regardless, while our dislike melts into the peace of presence.

For this week, please practice presence in tasks you undertake.


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