Rain with the backdoor open. The smell is more than ozone. It’s healing. The downpour on concrete outweighs this patter of keystrokes tenfold. Vine leaves, acer, and privet reach everywhere to catch the moment. Devon is verdant even in a garden without grass. It’s only in remembering that we realise we have forgotten. Unloading the dishwasher can wait. The sounds of kids’ TV have become abstract. It’s easy to forget one’s true responsibility in the crush of imagining failure and success. Half a life has passed by any generous measure. How much longer before I step into the rain?
Matthew Crawford’s book, The World Beyond Your Head, has some important lessons for maintaining clarity and sanity in a world of proliferating distractions.
In meditation circles, it’s common knowledge that prolonged stability of attention can create the conditions for deep insights to arise. However, we live in societies where attention is being monetised and manipulated by the advertising economy. Social media is engineered to foster addiction; newspapers are engaged in a clickbait race to the bottom. The river is flowing fast – away from clarity, insight, connection, and wellbeing – towards attentional degradation. There is a vicious circle in which we no longer have the willpower to do those things that nourish us and so we just scrape along the bottom: clicking, swiping, bingeing. Is there a way we can pay attention the people, things, and places we really ought to, and so become happier in the long run?
Getting jiggy with it
Fortunately, Crawford thinks he has identified something that will enable just this. He describes a process in which a skilled carpenter cuts several pieces of wood to the lengths she will require other pieces to be. This is called a “jig.” Rather than measure subsequent pieces of wood, she simply cuts the new wood by resting her saw against the jig. The jig is an improvised structure: one that it makes it easy to perform a task correctly and without cognitive effort. Crawford sees jigs everywhere: in the short-order cook’s kitchen, and in the world of information work.
For example, I’m writing this in a notebook on the train to see my parents. I have no headphones and no books with me. My phone is stowed, it’s data connection off. This set up is a kind of jig. I can think, meditate, write—or not—or watch the beautiful West Country scenery roll by. My attention is less likely to be dragged away from these pursuits as it could be were I using a computer, or could feel the bulk of a smartphone in my pocket. Later, if I type this up, working from these notes will themselves be a kind of jig. I haven’t even taken Crawford’s book with me. This is a big deal for someone who can’t usually travel for a weekend without bringing three books, one of which might be 500 pages long and impenetrably written.
What happens when mind and body are in the same place? It’s actually quite nice, often, or has the potential to be. But we need structure to make it happen. Willpower is a finite resource. There are good jigs and bad jigs, and we use them all the time. Pen and paper offer more attentional protection for writers than an iPad; meditation retreats provide seclusion in which the heart and mind settle; joining a gym provides you not only with equipment but a dedicated space – if you go. Holidays are jigs for relaxing; gambling machines are jigs for ridding yourself of money. The internet is perhaps the mother of all jigs, a chaotic uber-jig, that simply amounts to the closest thing we have to a goddess of distraction.
What kind of jigs do you use? Is there a way of arranging these structures to best support your nobler intentions?
If we believe that consciousness is the only ground of meaning and value (i.e. a universe without any conscious beings to experience it might as well not exist) then three conclusions may follow.
1) There would be nothing more worthwhile doing than enriching the conscious experience of self and others through activities like philosophy, meditation, the arts, counselling and cultivating our emotional lives, sciences, socialising and collaboration.
2) We might value neurologically diverse minds not only for their inherent worth as conscious beings but also perhaps as comparatively rare forms of consciousness.
3) Any meaning derived from the exploitation of conscious animals for food or sport would be at least partially undermined by violating this quality that makes all other value possible.
Finally, I’m not yet convinced about an AI singularity but (by these standards) bringing about a super-conscious intelligence may also be one of the most worthwhile things we could do. This providing it didn’t suffer inordinately or inflict greater net suffering on conscious life.
In a spell of good luck I had two poems in the running for the 2019 Teignmouth Poetry Competition, which is linked to the poetry festival. ‘Since Eels do not Keep Diaries…’ was selected for the final ten by John Greening. ‘Chiaroscuro’ was awarded first prize in the local section. Here’s the judge’s report from poet and novelist Julie-Ann Rowell:
The poem I chose for first prize is one of great lyrical delicacy and artistry. The city of New York, a place I know very well indeed, is captured superbly – ‘Manhattan … where history crawled out of its sleeping bag and stretched’. The connection between art and what it can and cannot do for us is expressed with tremendous expertise. This is a craftsperson who has a mastery of technique.
It was great to chat with the judges and poets. Thanks to the festival organisers, Virginia, Jennie, and Ian for all of their efforts to promote poetry locally and further afield.
Here’s the poem for the local prize:
Five years ago, I walked the eighty blocks
from Dan’s apartment in the West Village
all the way to the Met and found myself
staring at The Penitent Magdalen
alone for half the day. Nobody paints
skulls like they used to. There was no irony:
a candle-pale memento in her lap
held like a baby in her tenderness.
But it was the mirror that struck me.
Its flame burnt out of keeping with the first,
as if two candles lit her solitude.
One candle for knowledge, another for soul.
That evening was a bar two blocks away
where we drank screwdrivers until sparrows
sang at the Highline and Manhattan stirred
down at Zucotti Park, where history
crawled out of its sleeping bag and stretched.
Skyscrapers loomed either side of churches
that once dominated fields and houses.
Walking through cities, we see others’ lives
happening to them, even if they can’t.
Art has a little power for waking
but the rest is down to us. Is this prayer?
To be humbled in a white room where hope
has been given shape? Hope for redemption,
for the passion to imitate at first.
And for the courage to make forgeries
then let such grace as we find turn them true.
See the full competition results and learn more about their events on the Poetry Teignmouth website.
Photo: Viv Wilson.