Mr Stephen Fogarty, Director of Health and Physical Education
In her 2012 song The Moment, Australian singer-songwriter Mia Dyson is unambiguous when she sings, ‘You will know what to do when the moment comes’. I’m not so sure. In today’s world, with its inherent and ubiquitous level of distraction, it can be difficult to recognise the ‘moment’, never mind know what to do when it arrives. An example of why we find it increasingly difficult to engage deeply, using reading as a case in point, is provided by James Gleick in his book Faster (1999):
There is friction implied by choosing a book, cracking its spine, slitting its pages, adjusting the lamp, placing the bookmark; and this time-consuming frippery served an unintended purpose. Having made the investment, people found it natural to devote relatively large chunks of time to the actual reading. In contrast, the Web facilitates information consumption much as the remote control facilitated television watching. Reading on-line becomes another form of channel-flipping. (p.71).
In relation to the increased pace of correspondence, Gleick goes on to say:
Who knew that the inconvenience of old-fashioned letter-writing provided a buffer? Perhaps we simply have not had time to adjust. We may need to set aside formal time for deliberation, where once we used accidental time. (Gleick, 1999, p.89).
The pace and distraction of modern life makes it harder to ‘be in the moment’, and yet, I see my children (aged 8 and 11) do it frequently. It’s how they learn. When they are in the moment, they lean in, as young children do when they are engaged (Gladwell, 2008). They squint their eyes. When their interest is piqued, they are totally engrossed; so much so that any efforts to distract them are ineffectual. They are at one with the object of their interest. To what extent do the distractions of modern life affect their ability to maintain this high level of engagement? I can already see my eldest child, as she begins to succumb to these distractions (and they are arriving thick and fast), lose some of that innate ability to focus and remain deeply engaged. Writing in The Sydney Morning Herald about today’s adolescents — and indeed, those under 30 — Kelsey Munro outlines some of these distractions:
They have so much information coming in through aggregation, principally [social media], that they are working very hard to keep up with the constant flow. They aren’t able to attribute time and energy into specific passions; to the extent that maybe people could before social media was so pervasive … The youth of today are living their lives ‘one mile wide and one inch deep’. (Munro, 2013).
Whilst the previous line presents a neat aphorism, there is something to it. It’s how many of us feel (under 30 or otherwise). Early in January 2014, The Courier-Mail columnist Kathleen Noonan, writing in the reflective mood of someone crossing from one year to the next, extolled the virtues of the ‘stolen moment’ — nothing untoward — just a celebration of the wherewithal to recognise when she was ‘confronted with something wonderful’ (in this case, a painting). She offered many more examples and they all share a common thread — they are all (on a surface level) utterly mundane, but I suppose, that is the point. There is beauty to be seen in the everyday, we just need to be mindful enough to block out endless distraction. Noonan believes that the ‘best thing about stolen moments — they are simply that, a moment. You simply have to mind the gap, or maybe even, mine the gap. Whenever you find yourself waiting … simply be present’ (Noonan, 2014).
What of this ‘gap’ — this space between distractions? Readers of graphic novels and comic books will instinctively understand the concept. In a comic book, the space between panels is known, rather unceremoniously, as the gutter. Scott McCloud (1993) put it rather nicely when he stated that:
The gutter plays host to much of the magic and mystery that are at the very heart of comics. Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea. Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells you something must be there! (p.66)
So the gutter between panels becomes a place of utmost importance. The reader experiences something that is imperceptibly intense, yet utterly mundane. It is where we mind the gap. It is the place of the stolen moment; the place of deep concentration; the place of mindfulness.
How then, is one able to develop this all-important mindfulness? The first thing is responding to and/or quietening the ‘little voice’ that sometimes leads us astray when it comes to our ability to concentrate … our ability to stay focused. Concentration comes not from trying too hard to focus on something, but from keeping your mind open and directing it at nothing. A Zen Buddhist might describe it as trying not to ‘put a head on top of a head’ or trying not to think yourself out of being able to think clearly.
Phil Jackson, one of the great basketball minds of his (or any) generation, has won eleven National Basketball Association Championships; one as a player with the New York Knicks and ten as coach of the Chicago Bulls and the Los Angeles Lakers. He is renowned for his ability to get the best out of his players, and he often achieves this through unconventional means. In his book, Sacred Hoops: Spiritual Lessons of a Hardwood Warrior (1995), he has interesting things to say about his experiences with mindfulness.
Adapting the concepts to reflect a school context, Jackson suggests the thoughts of students sitting in class takes many forms. There is pure self-interest (‘I’m going to answer this question, because I know the answer and it’ll make me look smart in front of the class and the teacher.’) and selfless self-interest (‘I’m going to tell my best friend the answer and she can say it and that will make her like me.’). There is anger (‘She makes me so mad. If she answers another question correctly, I’m going to scream.’) and fear (‘I know the answer, but I can’t say anything. What if I’m wrong? I’ll look foolish.’) There is self-praise (‘That was cool. Do it again.’) and self-blame (‘What’s wrong with you? A ten-year-old would know the answer to that question.) (Jackson, 1995).
The litany can be endless. However, the simple act of becoming mindful of the frenzied parade of thoughts can (paradoxically) begin to quieten the mind. If this can be achieved, we are free to give our all to the thought process or an action, and we are free to practice with purpose. We have found a way to ‘be in the moment’.
A favourite quotation of recent times comes from 85-year-old New York photographer, Bill Cunningham, ‘He who seeks beauty will find it’. I urge you to seek beauty in the obscure, the mundane, and the everyday. Try to spend your time purposely operating at the edges of your ability and in the gutter between panels.
Will you know what to do when the moment comes? The answer is obvious — engage fully and practice with purpose. Be in the moment, because this is when deep learning occurs and deep understanding is attained.
Coyle, D. (2010). The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born, It’s Grown. New York: Bantam.
Dyson, M. (2012). The Moment [Recorded by Mia Dyson]. On The Moment [mp3 file]. Black Door Records.
Gladwell, M. (2008). What The Dog Saw. New York: Back Bay Books.
Gleick, J. (1999). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Random House.
Jackson, P. (1995). Sacred Hoops: Spiritual lessons of a Hardwood Warrior. New York: Hyperion.
Munro, K. (2013, April 20). Youth skim surface of life with constant use of social media. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved March 23, 2014, from http://www.smh.com.au/action/printArticle?id=4206303
Noonan, K. (2014, January 04). A moment to mine the gap. The Courier-Mail. p.72.
McCleod, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. Northhampton: Kitchen Sink Press.
Press, R. (Director). (2010). Bill Cunningham New York. [Film]. New York: Zeitgeist Films