Planting Seeds of Soul: The Seed of Clear Thinking

I want to start out this morning by introducing you to a tongue-in-cheek syndrome called Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder. Meditation teacher Warren Lee Cohen talks about this, in his book Raising the Soul. “This is how AAADD manifests itself: I decide to wash my car. As I start towards the garage, I notice that there is mail on the hall table. I decide to go through the mail before I wash the car. I lay my car keys down on the table, put the junk mail in the trash can under the table, and notice that the trash can is full. So, I decide to put the bills back on the table and take out the trash first. But then I think, since I’m going to be near the mailbox when I take out the trash anyway, I may as well pay the bills first. I take my check book off the table, and see that there is only one check left. My extra checks are in my desk in the study, so I go to my desk where I find the can of Coke that I had been drinking. I’m going to look for my checks, but first I need to move the can of Coke aside so that I don’t accidentally knock it over. I notice the Coke is getting warm and decide to put it in the refrigerator to keep it cold. As I head towards the kitchen with the Coke, a vase of flowers on the counter catches my eye. They need to be watered. I set the Coke down on the counter, and I discover my reading glasses that I’ve been searching for all morning. I decide I’d better put them back on my desk, but first I’m going to water the flowers. I set the glasses back down on the counter, fill a container with water and suddenly I spot the TV remote. Someone left it on the kitchen table. I realize that tonight when we want to watch TV, we’ll be looking for the remote, but nobody will remember that it’s on the kitchen table, so I decide to put it back in the den where it belongs, but first I’ll water the flowers. As I pour water on the flowers, some of it spills on the floor. So, I set the remote back down on the table, get some towels and wipe up the spill. Then I head down the hall trying to remember what I was planning to do. At the end of the day,” concludes Warren Lee Cohen, “the car isn’t washed, the bills aren’t paid, the trash hasn’t been taken out, there is a warm can of Coke sitting on the counter, there is still only one check in my checkbook, I can’t find the remote, I can’t find my glasses, and I don’t remember what I did with the car keys. Then when I try to figure out why nothing got done today, I’m really baffled because I know I was busy all day long, and I’m really tired, but now it’s time to check my email.”

Can you relate? It’s Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder. Busy all day long, but nothing really gets done, because it’s hard to maintain undivided attention on the task at hand. Hard to focus on just one thing at a time and not allow ourselves to be distracted by additional problems that inevitably pop up along the way.

And if it’s this way with the things in our outer world, how is it with the inner world of our thoughts?

The careful, deliberate, reasoned search for truth is a cornerstone of our free faith. Says the father of Unitarianism in America, William Ellery Channing, “Without … inward spiritual freedom outward liberty is of little worth. What [does it matter] that I am crushed by no foreign yoke if, through ignorance and vice, through selfishness and fear, I want the command of my own mind? The worst tyrants are those which establish themselves in our own breast. The man who wants force of principle and purpose is a slave, however free the air he breathes. The mind, after all, is our only possession, or, in other words, we possess all through its energy and enlargement.” That’s what the father of Unitarianism says. A capacity to be principled and purposeful in our thinking is simply basic to our way of faith. Without it, as we sail on OUR passenger ship, we’re lost. We can’t reliably read the signs of the times, nor discover what to do next. As Channing says, we fall prey to “a narrow, dark, confused intellect, which sees everything as through a mist, gives to everything the color of its own feelings, confines itself to what coincides with its wishes, contents itself with superficial views, and thus perpetually falls into errors….” This is not free faith. This is not who we are.

This morning, we tend to our most intimate relationship: the one we have with our thoughts. What are some of the tyrants that can establish themselves in us and muddle our thinking? And how might we develop our thinking so that it can be clearer? Today’s sermon is the second installment of the “Planting Seeds of Soul” series, so remember what I said last month about “wax on/wax off.” We’re going to learn our second “wax on/wax off” exercise today, to raise Unitarian Universalist soul in this place. That’s the goal.

But first: tyrants. One that comes immediately to mind is fallacious reasoning, or patterns of thinking that are bad according to logical standards but nevertheless make an impression on people who don’t know any better. Here’s an example of what I mean. I opened my Atlanta Journal-Constitution from yesterday and read that Georgia Congressman Nathan Deal “wants the president to prove he is an American citizen.” The article clarifies: “In June 2008, Obama’s campaign office released a digitally scanned image of his birth certificate … that shows he was born in Honolulu, Hawaii, on Aug, 4, 1961. Government officials in Hawaii have verified that the document is official. Yet Deal and others say they still have doubts.”

In any introductory level logic class, you’d learn that this is an textbook example of an ad hominem fallacy in formation, which tries to discredit a person’s policies and viewpoints not by presenting genuine evidence against them but by attacking the person, rendering his or her character so disgusting that no matter how good the policies are, no matter how penetrating the viewpoint, no one’s paying attention, no one’s listening. This is what the Birther movement hopes for, as it continues to nurture doubts about Obama’s citizenship status even in the face of an official birth certificate….

It’s just been one ad hominem attack after another. Fox News chairman Roger Ailes, joking about the similarity of Barack Obama’s name to that of the terrorist Osama bin Laden—and using the machinery of his organization to spread the joke around until it becomes no joke. Tea Party participants, carrying signs that feature Obama’s face with a Hitler mustache. A Thomas Sowell article, where he says, “Recent videos of American children in school singing songs of praise for Barack Obama were a little much, especially for those of us old enough to remember pictures of children singing the praises of dictators like Hitler, Stalin and Mao.” Do you see the steady building pattern of character assassination here? And too many Americans are completely persuaded by it, too many Americans vulnerable. The tyrant of fallacious reasoning, securing a place in our minds, and we don’t know any better. Not as a Democrat, but as an American, does this concern me, for how can I think about what President Obama is trying to do when psychological strings are being pulled and I can’t think straight? It’s horrible for democracy.

It’s definitely been horrible for reasoned debate about health care reform. Ad hominem fallacies one after another, together with others kind of fallacies. How about this one. I spotted it in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution just a few days ago: “Opponents Rally Against Health Care Bill”: 35 year-old David Seward, saying, “I think health care is expensive, but I like it and I’m scared to death of the government running it … I’m worried about the bureaucracy of the federal government getting involved.” This is what he says, and besides his completely ignoring the fact that government-run Medicare is a great success, do you see the underlying false dichotomy? It’s either big government or small government, and no other alternatives are possible…. Yet the issue is not so much big government vs. small government as the right amount of government really needed to solve the problem, to cut through the greed and the waste of the third-party payer medical-industrial complex. Big government vs. small government doesn’t tell the whole truth about how to solve this problem.

I could go on and on—all the kinds of fallacious thinking that have muddied up the debate around health care reform. Rep. Candace Miller from Michigan, commenting on yesterday’s passage of the health care bill in the House, saying, “We are going to have a complete government takeover of our health care system faster than you can say, `this is making me sick,'” adding that Democrats are intent on passing “a jobs-killing, tax-hiking, deficit-exploding” bill. Sounds like a classic slippery-slope argument to me, one that says that if government takes action to reform the health care system, if it sets a public option side-by-side with multiple private options and enables some REAL competition to take place, then all of a sudden, down the slippery-slope slide we go, and all sorts of horrible, fateful consequences are sure to follow. A classic appeal to fear. I don’t care what political party you belong to. I don’t care which president is in the White House. To me, manipulative language—Republican or Democratic—doesn’t help to create a great country. “Civil institutions,” said William Ellery Channing, “are to be estimated by the free and pure minds to which they give birth.” But our institutions are not being civil, and our minds must struggle against great odds to be free and pure. What would Channing say, if he could see what we see today?

This leads us to a second inner tyrant to become aware of. Besides the tyrant of fallacious reasoning, there is the tyrant of hyperconnectedness in our interactive, digital world. Here, we become experts in skimming and scanning as we flit from Facebook to text message to email to video game—and this can leave our ability to bring a full attention to one thing at a time severely underdeveloped. It can make us unfit to think great thoughts.

Marilee Sprenger talks about this in her wonderful article entitled “Focusing the Digital Brain.” “Let’s look,” she says, “at what happens in the brain of Emily, an average teenager, as she thinks she is focusing on a homework assignment. Emily sits in front of her laptop. Her iPod is playing music by Coldplay. She has three windows open on her computer screen: her Web browser through America Online, MSN Messenger for sending instant messages and e-mail, and her word processing program. Her homework is to write about five causes of the U.S. Civil War.

As Emily is putting her heading on her paper, her cell phone rings. She quickly picks up her phone and a picture of her friend Ivy appears on the screen. ‘Hi Ivy, what’s up?’ ‘You’re not going to believe who texted me,’ Ivy says. Emily squeals as she hears the name of someone Ivy is interested in dating. Just then Emily’s computer flashes, ‘You’ve got mail!’ The executive part of her brain drops the conversation with Ivy as she reads a new e-mail from another classmate asking for the homework assignment. Emily answers the e-mail as Ivy rambles on, but she realizes she should get back to work. ‘I’ll text you later, Ivy. I have to get some work done.’

Emily shifts her attention back to the word processing screen. Let’s see, where was I? Her brain must let the snippets of social conversation drop out of her working memory. Attending to the assignment causes Emily’s brain to retrieve long-term memories of her readings and lectures on the Civil War. As she begins to think about the differences between the North and the South before the Civil War, her mind drifts to picturing Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind.

Refocusing takes several seconds as she remembers what Mr. Montgomery told them in class about slavery. Emily types ‘causes of the Civil War’ into Google. Immediately, 12,900,000 hits come up. She clicks on the first link, realizes it doesn’t have any information she is looking for, and tries the next Web site.

Immersed in her search, she is startled by a jangle from her Blackberry. Emily sees Jackson’s text message ‘What r u doing?’ Jackson is Emily’s new love interest, so her brain floods with pleasurable chemicals as she types her reply—these chemicals make it hard to return to homework.

So it goes among the net generation. Multitasking? Not many tasks are getting done.”

Now, I quote Marilee Sprenger at length not to pick on the net generation—after all, I openly confess that I myself have a serious case of Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder. In fact, whatever generation we happen to be in—whatever degree of proficiency is ours in up-to-date communication technologies—it seems that the general tenor of the times is rush and gush. Continuous partial attention. How are we going to do the deeply spiritual work of thinking clearly when we have a limited capacity for patience to follow a chain of thoughts from beginning to end—to resist interruption—to focus on one thing and allow it to unfold its secrets?

“[H]onesty of mind,” says William Ellery Channing, “bears an exact proportion to the patience, steadiness, and resolution with which we inquire.” And that’s exactly what we turn to now. Developing this patience, this steadiness, this resolution. How?

Our wax-on/wax off spiritual exercise for this month—for those of you who choose to practice it with me—is “about learning how to cultivate interest in even the most mundane object and by maintaining your undivided attention on it to increase your ability to focus on anything. This is a step in learning how to give your attention freely and completely, whatever and whenever you should choose.” (Warren Lee Cohen).

Four steps:

Step one: Choose a simple, human-made object—an object manufactured rather than one found in nature, like a cup, or a pencil, a pin, a pair of chopsticks. Warren Lee Cohen, the source of this and all the other exercises, says that the less interesting your object appears at first, the more powerful the effects of deliberately focusing on it.

Also be clear on how many objects you’ll focus on over the course of the upcoming month, and for how long each session will be. I’d recommend one object per week, for around 5 to 10 minutes, at the same time every day. Make the decision, and lay out your plan clearly in your journal. Warren Lee Cohen tells the story of a man who spent 20 years contemplating the same pair of wooden chopsticks. Each and every day, he was able to find something new and interesting to think about; and clearly, it wasn’t the chopsticks that were changing—it was him, the quality of attention he was bringing to them. If he can contemplate the same pair of chopsticks for 20 years, surely we can contemplate the same object for a week, at 10 minutes a pop….

That’s step one. Step two is when you’re actually ready to do the exercise. Situate yourself in a comfortable place, and prepare yourself for the exercise by relaxing your body, calming your mind, just like an athlete stretching before a workout, or a musician tuning up an instrument.

Step three is to place before your mind this object that you have chosen to contemplate. This object that, initially, appears boring: A cup, a pencil, a pin. Train your thinking exclusively on this object in a clear and factual way. Focus on one fact and then link it to the next—in step by step fashion, follow your thinking as you deepen your understanding and interest in this simple, ordinary, human-made thing.

For example, say you choose to focus on a pencil. (Thoreau would like that—he was a pencil maker, you know…) You might start by describe how the pencil appears and of what materials it’s made. Then you might go on to describe how these materials were processed to get them into this form—to think through all the stages of manufacture. Then you might go on to consider how the object is used. Then you might think about who invented it, and how its invention is connected with the invention of other similar things. And so on—inquire with patience, steadiness, and resolution….

Notice that in this approach, you just jump right in. But there are alternative approaches to keep in mind. Do the one that works best for you. One alternative is to do a little research about your object first, before you start thinking about it. Another alternative is to do no research in advance but to develop questions naturally through the course of your own thought processes and then, when the time feels right, seek out answers through research. Enriched by that, return to the object and keep on thinking about it, keep on going deeper.

Finally, there’s step four. When your five or ten minutes is done, review the general direction of your thinking. What was the initial fact that grabbed your attention? Where did you go from there?

And this is the exercise. Do it along with the “review of the day” that I introduced last month. “Even if you cannot slow down the pace of your life,” says Warren Lee Cohen, “you can create regular moments of slowness or concentration each day. These can then become seeds, essential reminders of the qualities you would like to cultivate more in life.” That’s right. We’re planting seeds of soul. They look small—focusing on a boring-looking object for 10 minutes seems small—but if we do the exercises faithfully, the results will be big. Will strengthen our minds against manipulation. Will counteract Age Activated Attention Deficit Disorder and counterbalance the continuous partial attention of the digital brain. “The mind, after all, is our only possession,” says William Ellery Channing; “we possess all through its energy and enlargement.” So let us energize and enlarge it. Make Channing proud!