Soft Fascination

09/16/2016 07:55 am ET Updated Sep 16, 2016

Stone Age cave dwellers didn’t have the concept of relaxing. They spent sunrise to sundown fighting lions and tigers “oh my,” running like hell to catch or escape from their prey, then hauling their conquests home. Others fetched, gathered, and pounded - hides into clothes and plants into food. At day’s end, I’m guessing they didn’t turn to their mates and grunt, “How was your day, dear?”

Cave people wouldn’t win prizes for posture, but hey - they were evolving. What’s our excuse? Today everyone’s hunched over handheld devices transfixed by tweets and podcasts. Are we risking reverse evolution? Grandma warned me, “if you keep slouching you’ll have a permanent slump.” Vanquishing enemies, waging turf wars, and battling the elements consumed our ancestors’ attention. Still today, leisure is a luxury. But those of us who use our brains, not brawn, face an unprecedented challenge: sensory overload. Bombarded by electronic images, pings and ringtones, running to keep up with demands of daily life, our spirits scream, “Stop!” We’ve become what John Muir described as “tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people.”

No wonder we escape to retreats and nature sanctuaries. In OutsideOnline.com, Florence Williams notes, “These days, screen-addicted Americans are more stressed out and distracted than ever…there’s no app for that. But there is a radically simple remedy: get outside.” Williams describes “Forest Therapy” sites proliferating in Japan, a country where humans compressed into cubicles by day and cramped quarters at night commute through congested cities in claustrophobic conveyances. So simple, but universally true: Fresh air, trees and streams revive our spirits. Since most of us live in cities now, getting back to nature requires advance planning, time and travel. So we’re discovering ways to escape into our own interior spaces.

Today, scientists use brain-imaging and metabolic measurements to confirm what Eastern spiritualists have long known: meditation and deep, focused breathing yield measurable health benefits. These practices move the action to the parts of the brain where empathy and happiness reside, yielding more focus and creativity; less anxiety and stress.

In the 1970s, University of Michigan researchers studying how mental fatigue contributes to psychological distress observed that modern life demands “sustained directed attention” on tasks important and mundane—strategic planning or grocery shopping. Relief, they found, comes from “soft fascination… what happens when you watch a butterfly or the sunset. You can’t help but stop multitasking.” Think of that - soft fascination, like a toddler transfixed by an inchworm scrunching and stretching along a leaf. Where could that fit in the frenetic lives we lead today?

Consider economist Austin Frakt’s NY Times blogpost: “I felt scattered, unable to focus…bouncing from task to task all day. My workdays had become cycles of: type a few sentences, check email, check Twitter, check the news, repeat.”

Sound familiar? Those 70s era researchers would be blown away to see us wearing headsets, viewing multiple screens, confronted with a constant stream of distractions. We need relief, not from sustained concentration but from “contemplation interruptus.”

My mother didn’t do yoga or meditate. She never heard of aromatherapy or essential oils (unless cod liver oil counts). Sitting under the hair dryer once a week was the closest she came to a retreat. Her phone was attached to the wall. If someone called while she was out they’d call back - or not. Messages she received or sent were jotted down on notepads or penned on stationery, stamped and mailed. Did she get frazzled sometimes? Sure. For stress relief she’d have a cup of tea or lie down with a cool cloth over her eyes.

At day’s end, Dad left his busy law practice behind, playing cards and kibitzing on the commuter train. Somehow he managed to be home every evening at 6 p.m. After dinner Dad read the newspaper; we’d help Mom in the kitchen, then regroup to watch Perry Mason, I Love Lucy and other favorites. A one-screen, three-channel household, we watched what was on. The phone rarely rang. On weekends, golf offered Dad a respite from work. Did he think about the office? Sure. But was he connected to work 24/7? No! Why would he have wanted to live like that? To him, success meant having the luxury to enjoy family and leisure time.

Today we enjoy instant global communication, Wikipedia, and apps that do everything but brush our teeth and wipe our tushes. And yet, incessant incoming information and commitment-cluttered calendars leave little time to contemplate our lives and world. No wonder meditation’s appealing—we escape by closing our eyes, to a haven we create our minds.

When I catch myself mindlessly multi-tasking - texting while the coffee brews - I wonder: What’s the rush? I stop and savor the sweet aroma. Ah, yes. I wake up and smell the coffee.

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