Most smartphone users can barely read a 1000 word essay without getting distracted or switching the screen a few times. Why blame the smartphone? Turns out that the human mind is inherently susceptible to distractions – digital or otherwise. In this piece, Jamie Kreiner shows how the medieval monks almost 1600yrs ago faced similar problems concentrating and how led by John Cassian, they figured out a range of techniques to focus their mental energies.
“Medieval monks had a terrible time concentrating. And concentration was their lifelong work! 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. They were frustrated by their desire to stare out of the window, or to constantly check on the time (in their case, with the Sun as their clock), or to think about food or sex when they were supposed to be thinking about God. They even worried about getting distracted in their dreams.
…(John Cassian) complained that the mind ‘seems driven by random incursions’. It ‘wanders around like it were drunk’. It would think about something else while it prayed and sang. It would meander into its future plans or past regrets in the middle of its reading. It couldn’t even stay focused on its own entertainment – let alone the difficult ideas that called for serious concentration…
…Some of these strategies were tough. Renunciation, for instance. Monks and nuns were supposed to give up the things that most people loved – families, properties, businesses, day-to-day drama – not only to erode their sense of individual entitlement but also to ensure that they wouldn’t be preoccupied by that stuff in their professional lives of prayer. When the mind wanders, the monastic theorists observed, it usually veers off into recent events. Cut back your commitments to serious stuff, and you’ll have fewer thoughts competing for your attention…
Restraint had to work on a physiological level, too. There were many theories in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages about the connection between the mind and body. 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. That didn’t mean that the body must be rejected, only that it needed tough love. For all monks and nuns, since the very start of monasticism in the 4th century, this meant a moderate diet and no sex. Many of them also added regular manual labour to the regimen. They found it easier to concentrate when their bodies were moving, whether they were baking or farming or weaving.
There were also solutions that might strike people today as strange, which depended on imaginary pictures. Part of monastic education involved learning how to form cartoonish cognitive figures, to help sharpen one’s mnemonic and meditative skills. The mind loves stimuli such as colour, gore, sex, violence, noise and wild gesticulations. The challenge was to accept its delights and preferences, in order to take advantage of them. Authors and artists might do some of the legwork here, by writing vivid narratives or sculpting grotesque figures that embodied the ideas they wanted to communicate. But if a nun wanted to really learn something she’d read or heard, she would do this work herself, by rendering the material as a series of bizarre animations in her mind. The weirder the mnemonic devices the better – strangeness would make them easier to retrieve, and more captivating to think with when she ‘returned’ to look them over.
Say that you wanted to learn the sequence of the zodiac. Thomas Bradwardine (a 14th-century university master, theologian and advisor to Edward III of England) suggests that you imagine a gleaming white ram with golden horns, kicking a bright red bull in the testicles. While the bull bleeds profusely, imagine that there’s a woman in front of it, giving birth to twins, in a gory labour that seems to split her up to her chest. As her twins burst forth, they’re playing with an awful red crab, which is pinching them and making them cry. And so on…”
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Note: the above material is neither investment research, nor financial advice. Marcellus does not seek payment for or business from this publication in any shape or form. Marcellus Investment Managers is regulated by the Securities and Exchange Board of India as a provider of Portfolio Management Services. Marcellus Investment Managers is also regulated in the United States as an Investment Advisor.
Copyright © 2022 Marcellus Investment Managers Pvt Ltd, All rights reserved.
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