Step into almost any big box store, and you will see huge sections devoted to escapism. In my local Costco, televisions dominate the space inside the entrance. Screens up to six feet across shimmer by the dozens. Smartphones and tablets are displayed a little further inside. Deeper within the store stand piles of books and videos, which are adjacent to two vast rows of booze. Every one of these products offers the buyer escape from what society has deemed intolerable: quietly abiding within our bodies and minds.
It’s hard to imagine hunter-gatherers feeling bored. Though they had long periods of inactivity, times when they weren’t hunting or gathering, odds are they enjoyed the leisure. They used it to visit with one another. To tell stories. To connect.
What’s the difference between hearing someone tell a story and watching one on television? When we listen to another we connect, but when we watch TV we disconnect. It’s common in restaurants to see families around tables, each member engaged with a screen rather than their relatives. The lack of connection is obvious.
It isn’t just that we disconnect from others when we turn to our distractions; we disconnect from our bodies. When I was in hospital during 2012 and 2014, I was very glad to have my laptop with me, so I could stream videos and distract myself from my situation, from the discomfort of lying in bed for hours, surrounded by machines, throbbing with pain. That I was avoiding reality seemed obvious, but in that context it felt healthy. Still, it might have been healthier to spend the time meditating. Indeed, on occasion I did meditate, and it did feel like a more positive activity. But I couldn’t keep that going for hours on end, so I watched the screen. I’m too used to escapism to escape it.
Devote a day to noticing every time you distract yourself from the present moment. Notice when you check your emails while seated next to your spouse, watch a TV show rather than sit quietly with your body, read a book while eating, or lose yourself in thought while walking in a park. We crave distraction because we fear boredom. But what is boredom but disinterest in life itself?
One of the most healing aspects of time in nature is the slow pace of change. Even when creatures are busy, there’s a sense of stability you don’t find in human culture. Ants crawl about constantly, but they repeat movements that have changed little in millions of years. Birds fly here and there, but if you watch them over time you see that although they are in frequent motion, their activities look the same from day to day. Nature is active, but it’s peaceful in its routines.
Human lives are also built on routines, but for some reason we find the sameness intolerable. So we watch videos, scroll through websites, and take mind-altering substances. Of course, our distractions quickly become habitual, and as they lose their novelty we realize we’ve exchanged the healthy monotony of living for the destructive monotony of addiction.
Why is simply sitting still so unpleasant? Beginning meditators confront the chaos of mental life; often they conclude they ‘can’t meditate’ because they can’t get things under control. But that’s the whole point. We don’t need to get things under control; we just need to be present for them. It’s the attending to reality that heals and relaxes; trying to box it in makes us feel toxic and stressed. By simply watching our lives, we learn there isn’t anything we can’t endure. We learn that life is livable, even interesting, even lovable, no matter what it brings.
Distraction’s promises are false. It seduces us by promising relief from distress, but it establishes a pattern of avoidance that serves to entrench chronic unease. We lose the ability to sit still with life; we become desperate for escape.