Monday, September 3, 2018

Distraction, Presence and Wabi-Sabi

For much of my writing about wabi-sabi, I have found myself circling the terms "integrity," "authenticity," "veneer" and "facade" on a regular basis. I may not use these terms explicitly, but they have informed the posts I have added to my blog over the years. When I have focused on these, there has been an underlying aspiration to take the wabi-sabi aesthetic and expand it beyond its application in design to a broader interpretation that could apply to leadership. At the same time, however, I have been conscious of not striking the balanced Buddhist tone that other writers on wabi-sabi achieve.

This afternoon, however, I was struck by an oversight that I have cultivated over the years: distraction.

Much of what is happening in the public realm in 2018 is aimed at distracting us. The public discourse is clad in a fanfare and sensory overload that asserts that something is indeed a big deal and big deals in 2018 are as close to truth as we can get when we want to be distracted and so many organizations and public figures are happy to grant us this wish.

It would be interesting to determine how much of our economy, our carbon footprint or our time is devoted to nurturing or maintaining a certain level of distraction amongst us. The challenge there would be splitting the hairs and determining if something is indeed distracting us, or if it is sparking a thought or cultivating an advocacy of a public or personal nature to defend what we value.

Whatever energy we put into creating or consuming distractions is that they not merely give us a quick hit of an endorphin or some other neurochemical that alters our mindset, they may also dull our sensitivity to or awareness of subtler aspects of our lives. To illustrate this with a personal example, my palate is quite attuned to the explosive fat-bomb of flavour that a fudge brownie can offer but I struggle to discern the nuances of a glass of wine.  I digress.

In lives dedicated to responding to or seeking one distraction or another we are tuning ourselves out to the potential and realities of our own lives and the depth of the relationships we have, the routines that we can establish. My six-year-old son begins grade 1 tomorrow and the rituals the come with the end of summer are being entrenched with familiarity. I recall the sweater he wore last year, the Expos hat that bonds me to him, the weather, the emotions and I look ahead to tomorrow's variation on those themes. The sweater and hat still fit. The weather is cooler and shorts won't suffice. And he is so much bigger. The recollections of 2017 and tomorrow are snapshots that are and will remain vivid. The passage of time, the moment to check in on the memories from last year and what I anticipate occurring tomorrow all activate memories, experience and ultimately, a self that is more personal and more attuned to where, and who I am at a given moment than is the case when I am more striving to distract myself.

When you are distracting yourself, the intention is to be out of our minds, to tune things. Sometimes it is ideal to do this, but we are probably at a point where we may be encountering diminishing returns on the amounts of distraction that we surrender ourselves to. It is done at the risk of de-personalizing ourselves or sacrificing self-awareness. As we have seen in the public realm, distraction has served to undermine our collective potential to be active, engaged citizens. In other ways to may exacerbate our frustrations about finding our identity or achieving happiness or contentment.

In the Japanese film After Life (1998), recently deceased individuals are asked to identify a memory from their life that they would want re-enacted for them to take as the sole memory they would take with them to heaven. A late-teens, early-20's female says in her early debriefings that her preferred memory to reenact would be a trip to Disneyland. One of the staff members bristles at this and diplomatically works to bring the young woman around and increase her awareness and consciousness of other, more personal memories. To make the case, the staffer points out that 30 people had recently cited a Disneyland memory as well. Eventually, the young woman comes around to a more personal, sensually sharp memory of her mother during early childhood.

Such a memory (of distraction) is not a defining or particularly personal one. Beyond that, there is the likelihood of a sensory overload that numbs us and eliminates the possibility of not only fully absorbing the experience of a Disney visit but, as is the case with my grasp of wine, numbs our ability to appreciate the simple beautiful moments of the daily that -- if we are present enough in the given moment to reflect upon them -- beautify our lives. (Note: I need to thank filmmaker Gokonada for the tap on the shoulder regarding this overlooked character arc in After Life.)

Pausing to find, reflect upon and appreciate the inherent beauty of the moments that go into raising a child: watching him grow and savouring the moments of walks to school or home, are rich with details that are far more nourishing than any distraction. They are familiar and see easy to forget or overlook, however. The distractions may make for good photo album fodder or an amusing Facebook post, but may distort the reality rather than accurately represent it.

I've moved past the days when his stillness at night prompted a horrified hand to reach for the assurance of a rising and falling chest. Those moments, which are so familiar that they can either risk being forgotten or, with care come to be regarded with an intimacy that makes them echo with others who know those same experiences and enchant and comfort us. It is that intimacy, that fine-tuned, sommelier-level awareness of the emotional beauty of a moment that enriches our lives more deeply than the distractions we may pursue.

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