"There was a care on my mind so to pass my time, as to things outward, that nothing might hinder me from the most steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd." (John Woolman, writing in the 1740s)
In his journal, the Quaker John Woolman writes of the temptations, or distractions, that he and his contemporaries faced. Two he mentions are spirits (alcohol) and spending money on fine apparel (clothing). Today, the range of distractions is much wider: the internet; films and box sets on demand; and planes, trains and automobiles that make it so much easier to explore the world, near and far. Our choices appear almost limitless. To quote the old Microsoft advert: "Where do you want to go today?"
But perhaps, in truth, this seeming myriad of choices can be reduced to one. Ours is the same decision that John Woolman had to make: which voice do we choose to listen to? Will we jump to the tune of our ego, or will we take heed to the promptings of Love?
The voice of my small, separate, self would have me seek "things outward" to complete me - but it is never satisfied with what it gets. If I observe its urges carefully but don't immediately act on them, I may discern another voice. This is the voice of what Woolman called the "True Shepherd", and which we might call our Greater Self. If we give that loving voice our steady attention, and remain true to it alone, it may lead us to a simpler life - one with fewer distractions. It will surely lead us to greater fulfilment and peace.
I blogged some time ago about one of my biggest outward distractions - the internet. I go on-line with good intentions, but frequently I fall down a rabbit-hole on YouTube, or check the Polish lower-division football scores. The longer I sit in front of the screen, the harder I find it to pull myself away. I wonder what Woolman would have made of the web? I expect he would reflect on whether or not it helped him to stay in touch with his Inner Guide. If he found it a hindrance, he would lay the distraction aside.
I sometimes think there should be a 12-steps programme, similar to Alcoholics Anonymous, for people who are addicted to their computers, television or phones.
In the absence of such a group, I've devised my own rule (in the monastic sense of the word), which I'll try to observe from now on…
Questions for reflection
What outward things may be hindering you from paying steady attention to the voice of the True Shepherd?
What rule might help you remove those blocks to Inner Peace?
"When I realise that some part of my life is acting to distract me from hearing God's guidance or following that guidance wholeheartedly, it is time to simplify my life by subtracting that distraction." (Lloyd Lee Wilson, Journal of the North Carolina Yearly Meeting (Conservative))
I'm fortunate in that I've never had an addiction to alcohol or drugs, and I don't smoke. When it comes to chocolate and other indulgences, I'm good at rationing myself. I do like my oatcakes and green tea – but as food 'addictions' go, they're not exactly the worst. If I do have a vice, it's been to spend too much time on the internet.
After a busy day at work, or sometimes at weekends if I'm at home, I find it tempting to switch on my laptop and go online. It doesn't happen very often, but on occasions I might still be sat there three hours later. It's not that I'm necessarily doing anything 'worthwhile' – like researching a new novel or booking on a workshop. Rather, the longer I'm at the computer screen, the harder I find it to drag myself away. Do I really need to know the latest Polish third division football scores? Effectively, I'm wasting the day.
As an antidote to this minor addiction, I've recently decided to put my laptop away at the end of each session. I disconnect the mouse, put the computer and its power lead away in their case, and hide the case in my cupboard.
I find that, if the computer is put away out of sight, I'm less likely to succumb to a casual whim to log onto it when I'm feeling stressed at the end of a long day. Going onto the computer now requires a little more effort – even the simple act of having to retrieve the laptop from its case in the wardrobe makes me think twice before going ahead. When I do choose to log in now, it's because there is something specific I need to do. It's become a more conscious choice. I'm mindful as I open the cupboard door; as I unzip the laptop case; as I place the machine on my desk. I've found that going through these simple actions with full attention prevents my mind from wandering – and from being distracted by soundbites or diversions when I am on-line.
"We are each obliged to use our time, abilities, strength, money, material possessions, and other resources in a spirit of love, aware that we hold these gifts in trust and that we are responsible for using them wisely." (Inter Mountain Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice, 2009)
Peter Parr: Quaker, writer and former member of the British minigolf team. (Actually those are all just roles I play. Words can't describe who any of us really are.)