Until a few months ago, a tidal wave of noise flooded my apartment most evenings. NPR’s talking heads spouted off as I made dinner. A rotation of comedians-turned-podcasters bantered back and forth as I ate dinner. Late-night host Trevor Noah cracked jokes as I tidied up. Then the scrolling before bed began: TikTok, YouTube, Instagram.
Lather, rinse, repeat.
New York Times opinion columnist Ezra Klein tossed me a rescue buoy when he dedicated a recent episode of his podcast to the new book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention—and How to Think Deeply Again (Crown Publishing Group). Among many valuable insights, author Johann Hari puts a name to what was missing for me and countless others: space for mind-wandering.
Hari explains that human attention often works like a spotlight. We narrow our focus on the stimulus of the moment. The problem, Hari argues, is that most people today live in a “tornado of mental stimulation.” Our brain spotlights constantly jump from a friendly conversation to an email notification to a grocery list to a needy child to another email notification.
Bulbs burn out at this pace.
Hari advocates for the importance of mind-wandering—a different form of attention when the spotlight fades and thoughts can meander free of agendas. This type of thinking is essential for human flourishing. During mind-wandering, our brains reflect on experiences and make new connections. We allow ourselves to follow a train of thought, uninterrupted, from start to finish. Mind-wandering tends to be a deeply creative time. As Hari notes, “Many great breakthroughs don’t happen during periods of focus—they happen during mind-wandering.”
It occurred to me—during a device-free, agenda-less walk—that mind-wandering is a profoundly spiritual practice. Religious folk may liken mind-wandering to contemplation, the practice of being fully present to the divine.
Jesus seemed to allow his mind to wander plenty during his ministry days. The gospels describe the Son of God going off by himself to pray quite a few times, often escaping to the mountains or other wild spots of solitude. The authors do not go into detail about how Jesus spent that time. He could have brought a stack of books to keep him stimulated. He probably spent at least a few minutes reciting psalms and other traditional prayers.
But I imagine the Son of God spent a good chunk of his time in the mountains letting his mind wander: processing the events of the day, connecting insights from the people he served, and simply sitting with God. Jesus quieted external noise so he could pay attention to the internal musings. He quieted societal agendas so he could listen to the Creator. Jesus let his mind wander and was a more whole person for it.
I’m not exaggerating when I say this concept reshaped my days. I still listen to plenty of podcasts. I still scroll on my phone after dinner. Such things are not inherently bad. But these days I try to consume in moderation. I try to let my mind wander more.
How might you build in more time for mind-wandering? The possibilities are endless. Wake up a few minutes earlier. Head out for a walk before the neighborhood gets busy. Drink a cup of coffee on the back porch with nothing but the sunset to keep you company. The long, lazy days of summer offer a perfect setting to start new habits.
This article also appears in the May 2022 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 87, No. 5, page 7). Click here to subscribe to the magazine.
Image: Unsplash/Ashley Batz