C O N T R O L S Y S
T E M S
The Distraction System
This article is about two mental states: focus
which we define as follows:
It’s also about the tendency of society to
turn naturally focused people into chronically
“Normal society” regards focused people as
a threat, as they ask too many awkward questions
(ie real questions the kind were
not supposed to ask). To avoid these questions,
society distracts everybody with a frenzy of
competitive activity, jobs, TV/media opinions,
advertising, celebrity trivia, scandals, etc.
This frenzied distraction begins outside, but
it soon becomes internalised and self-reinforcing.
So after a busy, distracting day, we pursue
more distraction (eg TV, shopping or
talking) rather than enter a focused state.
Eventually our own minds become the source
When children learn new skills – walking, reading
etc – they have to focus; they tap into
a reservoir of potential concentration. But
when a skill becomes habitual (ie automatic),
the concentration is no longer needed. By the
time we’re adults, most essential skills are
habitual – we no longer need to concentrate
in order to walk, talk, behave politely, etc.
The reservoir of potential concentration should
therefore be free for other uses.
But instead of tapping into this freed-up potential
concentration, we’re seduced or coerced by society’s
distractions. Our minds swarm – we react involuntarily
to any passing stimuli. This is the true meaning
of “fitting in”. Distraction is the social norm
and anyone who doesn’t join in is regarded as
antisocial or suspicious.
Advertisers brainwash us into reflexively associating
distraction with enjoyment, as if involuntary
fragmentation of attention was the definition
of fun. Meanwhile, education, for most people,
was about having to focus and concentrate on
things we found boring and unpleasant, eg cramming
for exams. So we end up thinking:
concentration = depressing;
distraction = fun.
But the opposite is true according to brain
chemistry: focus can trigger a big release of
pleasure chemicals, whereas distraction usually
inhibits this release. Meditators are
aware of this, but tend to play down the pleasure-seeking
aspect of meditation, describing it instead
as “inner work” (which, naturally, puts most
Survival, for most of us, requires a degree
of fitting in to “normal society”. Powerful
economic forces make sure that our fitting
in is long and distracting (eg 40hr-week
jobs). Given this chronic distraction, it’s
not surprising that so few people tune into
focused states of mind. And those who do (meditators
etc) unfortunately see it as austerity rather
Hedonistic focus – using your brain for fun
– is the way to overcome the Distraction System.
But you have to look in some strange places
to find enjoyable focusing techniques (using
our mental faculties to “get high” is, for respectable
society, like using a church for an orgy – so
we shouldn’t be surprised if the best techniques
come from books that do recommend orgies in
Distraction addicts often seek more and more
intensity of distraction, but never feel
satisfied. That’s because intensity is a state
of mind, not an external pursuit. As a mental
state, it’s closer to focus than distraction.
In other words, the best thing for thrill-seekers
is to sit in a quiet room learning how to concentrate.