“The mind ought sometimes to be diverted that it may return to better thinking.”
~ Phaedrus (5th c., B.C.)
A nourishing fruit of spiritual life is the learned ability to adjust attention. Over the years, I’ve been making sure to retain useful knowledge, both by writing and by committing good advice to memory. When it comes to studies, I’ve been creating indices and writing in chapbooks, careful to cite what was found and where- so that I can retrace steps to sources. I’ve grown to consider cherished books as waystations, and the notes I create are essentially maps to the springs. A gem of spoken advice I’ve found unforgettable came from a wise elder who liked to say, “if you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing.” There; now I’ve passed this along to you.
Distracting attention from hardships, or even just from plain and repetitious routines, may be viewed as escapist denial of reality. That reality depends, and it’s for the individual to self-examine and make that determination. Here, I’m thinking along the lines of healthy diversion. These are dark times and the general picture is bleak. A great many of us struggle just to maintain an even keel. Economics are less and less favorable to those who begin and proceed without privileged foundations. For my part, the pursuits of basic sustenance and a stable standard of living intensify by the month. It is something of a competition among large crowds seeking decreasing numbers of musical chairs. But to cease the struggle would be even costlier than to maintain momentum. When there’s a goal in sight, the last thing any competitor would do is give up the ship. In this context, healthy diversion amidst daunting struggles is especially vital.
Spicing up the doldrums, if anything, helps the cause of creativity. I may not be able to improve my lot anywhere close to as quickly as I’d prefer, but it is within my forces to find constructive avocations. I can’t imagine otherwise. Forging ahead in barren wilderness, nary an oasis, is as unappealing as an undecorated living space or a day without the textures of music. We have the facility to enjoy beauty and learning because we are innately aware of what edifies us, what motivates our progress. Between employment and housing, it is as though every moment must be “rented,” with puddlejumped weekdays en route to islands of less-constrained breathers, time and energy woefully reduced to units of commerce. All the more reason to clear away spaces to change the scenery- even if just for a few hours, igniting the soul that longs to flourish, thirsting for enduring sacredness.
Perhaps even the “healthiest” diversion might file under escapism. Well, so be it! Just like knowing when and what to eat, to stay nourished and alert, I take stock in knowing how to squeeze learning and creative expression into the narrowest confines. Particularly in the recent dozen years, writing has been my principal diversion. Journaling is an extension of such essential conduits as thought-processes, spiritual comprehension, analysis, and reflection. It is as critical to continue developing ways to write, as it is to simply continue writing every day. When I have more time, there is more time to write; when the immediate is a plethora of commitments and tasks, it’s a sentence here-and-there. However it may manifest, there is always writing material at the ready. Pencil and paper go along with me through other preferred diversions- such as photography, travels near and far, museums, hiking, visits with friends, sanctuaries, cafés.
Drafting this essay, at the Boston Athenaeum.
A wonderfully portable diversion is reading. When I was in graduate school, although inevitably earning a professional masters degree, before changing majors I was introduced to the horizonless wonders of philosophy. As soon as I submitted my thesis, I knew enough to return the philosophical books that had to be set aside in favor of the required reading of my curricula. Having the freedom to study as I wish is something I continue to cherish. The study of philosophy might be called a healthy diversion within a healthy diversion. It is fertile ground in which to immerse my imagination. It is also a subject I’ve added to my teaching array. As for imagination, I’ve found this to be its own form of cultivated diversion- all the while aware that its lesser aspects can be something of a minefield, rather than a healthy diversion for the cause of balance and growth.
Teaching philosophy (above); Absorbing philosophy (below).
Along this voyage, I’ve also grown to find that some of the temporary distractions, the “band-aids” needed to get through the more difficult spans have joined my arsenal of dependable diversions. For me, nothing quite fulfills the advice of “if you don’t like how you’re feeling, change what you’re doing” like a contemplative retreat. The first time I made such a journey, it was very much a spontaneous attempt to interrupt a terribly chaotic time, seeking out a quiet and welcoming refuge. There were no other expectations. Then I found myself returning to this type of experience, always with positive anticipation, always cherishing the prospect of hospitable shelter, meeting kindred spirits, always discovering new perspectives to fuel my spirit. Likewise, pilgrimage travels have been teaching me about diversions as adventures to be savoured. Thus far, it remains for me to fully apply this, but the simpler respites- even my commutes- are to benefit from the broader expeditions.
In his book, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton famously said, “If you have never had any distractions, you don't know how to pray.” I’m sure he was not referring to the friendly, constructive kinds of distractions, but I’ll allude to the this in the sense that contemplative life- especially for postmoderns- must be able to grow increasingly sturdy and substantial amidst struggles and juggles. Often distractions are needed to interrupt an untenable din of distraction. Then, having stepped away from barrages of fragments and demands, the return can find strength of focus and drive- even improved clarity of thought. Diversion permits for observation, and knowing to divert is indeed a good result of having observed.