Jamie Kreiner, The Wandering Mind | Book Review By Anna Katharina Schaffner
Medieval History | Book Review | TLS
Originally published on 30 June 2023 in the Times Literary Supplement
The digital age seems to be one of chronic distraction. Our obsession with mindfulness and the enhancement of productivity testifies to just how concerned we are about our capacity to focus our attention. Yet, as Jamie Kreiner’s compelling, beautifully written and often amusing new book demonstrates, our worries about our ability to concentrate are far from unique.
Medieval monks are often held up as paragons of disciplined attentiveness. After all, it was their job to focus exclusively on spiritual matters. Just as we talk about “knowledge workers” nowadays, we might think of them as “attention workers”. But, Kreiner explains, the idea that they effortlessly pulled off heroic feats of concentration is a myth. Focusing on early Christian monks living in the Middle East, around the Mediterranean and in Europe from c.300-900, she shows how they battled with distraction on a daily basis. For them the matter of concentration was underpinned by eschatological urgency, because their aim was to overcome the separation of their souls from the divine. The more the object and outcome of our attention matter, the harder we will fight to achieve a state of pure concentration; given that a monk’s attention was focused on their salvation, the stakes could not have been higher. Attention was a moral imperative.
In late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, distraction was diagnosed as a weakness of the will and a marker of a lack of faith. It was believed that demons could seed dangerous thoughts in those who failed to remain vigilant. Today we still think of distraction in moral terms, as caused by a lack of commitment or self-discipline. Kreiner understands distraction as being drawn into doing or thinking something we did not want to do, and argues that we have inherited “a set of cultural values surrounding cognition that are specifically monastic and, to an extent, specifically Christian”. While our own distraction no longer signifies a distance from the divine, it gets in the way of our current secular version of salvation: productivity.
The strategies to counter distraction developed by medieval monks include strikingly modern-sounding meta-cognitive practices and second-order observations. The contemplatives thought about thinking a lot: they came up with visual imagery of minds gathering themselves, corralling their thoughts together like errant sheep. They practised being discerning about the nature of their thoughts, watching them carefully in order to eradicate the “demonic” ones before they could take root. As Abba Poemen (c.340-450), from the Nile delta, put it: “Just as a ruler employs a bodyguard, the mind needs one, too”. He believed that monks “should organize their thoughts like clothes in a closet, or trap unwanted thoughts in a bottle like a snake or scorpion”. Cognitive behavioural therapy models still work with the notion of “negative thoughts” that can be vanquished by shining the light of reason on them, while acceptance and commitment therapy invites us to “defuse” the content of unhelpful thoughts and observe their form instead. But monks were also distracted by much more trivial matters: they would fall asleep while reading, think about food and sex, and become annoyed by their brethren’s yawning, giggling, sniffling, sneezing and chatter.
When it came to reading, early Christian monks developed sophisticated book technologies to ensure that their minds remained focused on the holy texts. They experimented with layout and graphic design, as well as different reading practices. Furthermore, they devised sophisticated mnemonic techniques that resemble what are now known as “memory palace” exercises, based on anchoring knowledge spatially in our imagination. Less benign attempts to counter distraction included self-castration to abolish sexual desires, fasting and severe dietary regimes, and sleep deprivation. Some went further still. The fifth-century ascetic Simeon Stylites the Elder, celebrated for living on top of a pillar, continued to concentrate on God even when his foot became severely infected. Legend has it that he continued with his prayers while performing an amputation of the offending limb.
Ironically, some of the monks’ strategies became distractions in their own right, backfiring completely. Bathing and grooming were deemed to be forms of worldly luxury, and it was for this reason that uncleanliness came to be seen as a spiritual credential. Some monks entered into a competition to see who could be the dirtiest of them all. Others engaged in fasting marathons or sought to outperform their monastic colleagues in their disdaining of all things secular.
Still, there is plenty to be learnt from the contemplatives’ various techniques. Perhaps the most important takeaway is that monks had a more systemic view of distraction than we do: they saw it as a highly complex problem resulting from “the competing demands of family, work, government, and public”. They knew that distraction had a cosmological, cognitive, cultural, social, physical and psychological dimension, and their remedies, therefore, were more holistic and complex than ours. But, as Kreiner helpfully reminds us, concerns about concentration are ubiquitous. While the sources of our distraction and the objects we deem worthy of our full attention change, worrying about them seems an immutable part of being human.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is the author of Exhaustion: A history, 2016