Monday, December 21, 2009

A cure for the unquiet mind

Pico Iyer had an interesting article in yesterday's LA Times on the "tyranny of the moment." He ends it like this:

"A few days ago, I conducted a small experiment in my two-room apartment here in rural Japan. I spent two hours clicking through what are among the most literary and unhurried of the alternatives to books, the online versions of the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. I came away with delectable snippets of information about Richard Holbrooke, American schools and the Obama campaign. I could talk now about any of these matters of current interest at a dinner-party with three minutes' worth of wisdom. But I also felt, as I logged off, a little as I did when I worked four blocks from Times Square: wildly stimulated, excitingly up-to-the-moment, alive with ideas -- and with no time or space to hear myself think.

Then I picked up a novel a friend had just given me, the not very remarkable Swiss book "Night Train to Lisbon." It's a long way from Virginia Woolf or Emily Dickinson, and it didn't begin to hold me as Alice Munro or Colm Tóibín might. But when I looked up from my reading, I'd forgotten what time it was, my self and my life seemed much larger -- and it was as if I'd stepped out of a traffic-jammed car on the 405 at 5 p.m. on a Friday and into a deep forest rich with secrets.

Define happiness, someone asked me recently. Absorption, I said instantly (it was an e-mail interview), and anything that gives me an inner life and a sense of spaciousness, intimacy and silence. The world is much better for many of us now than it was 10 years ago, and I never could have dreamed so many of us would have so many kinds of diversion, excitement and information at our fingertips.

But information cannot teach the use of information. And diversion doesn't teach us concentration. Imagine a seven-hour-long heart-to-heart with someone who's been saving up all her life for what she's about to whisper in your ear. The medium that has been dying the whole century may be one way we can rebel against the hidden dictatorship of Right Now."

Fed by numerous sources of information and inspiration, my brain hums along very merrily at a rather high RPM, enabling me to complete an alarming number and assortment of tasks at work in a quick and capable manner while holding in my head a vision that unifies all the work that I do in the name of children's literature and library services. However, this ability comes with its price - it's really hard for me to shut my darn brain off when I get home from work. Whether I'm running, cooking, or trying to sleep, my brain keeps processing and planning away, which may be a wonderfully efficient way of getting work done but does nothing for my peace of mind. At work, I like to keep my mind active and engaged. At home, I treasure tranquility and relaxation.

I don't know how to meditate. Mindfulness eludes me. But becoming utterly absorbed in a book - this is something I can do. This is the ONLY thing that shuts off my brain, in fact. While reading, I become, as Iyer says, completely absorbed. My body relaxes, the adrenalin ceases to flow - I'm sure that a brain scan would show my brain waves rolling peacefully along rather than peaking jaggedly.

Now, more than ever, people need to have the ability to tune out the constant barrage of information and stimulation. I subscribe to so many blogs that I find myself skimming through them, which is fine for most of them but absolutely defeats the purpose of thoughtful and well-written posts like Peter Sieruta's
Collecting Children's Books. And yet it's difficult to slow down and read a screen of text word by word. If a life-long reader like me can't concentrate long enough to read a medium-length blog, what is the world coming to?

So far, I have no problems concentrating on books. If I ever lose that ability, you'll just have to cart me away - but for now, fiction is balm to my restless soul.

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