Op-Ed

How to overcome distraction, seize the 'meta-moment' and do the right thing

A writer attempts 'a year of living virtuously' and struggles with mindfulness, being present in the moment

Benjamin Franklin was in his early 20s when he embarked on what he called his “bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection.” He set out 13 virtues including order, industry, sincerity and humility, and made a chart in which he tracked each virtue for a week at a time and marked his transgressions. He could run through his list four times over the course of a year, and he expected that “by a number of courses, I should be happy in viewing a clean book.”

Alas, he never achieved a clean book. “I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong,” he wrote in his autobiography. “I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other.”

In the end, he was surprised to find himself “so much fuller of faults than I had imagined.”

Inspired by Franklin's quest, I adapted it as a yearlong writing practice, adding the seven deadly sins and a bevy of other virtues and vices as fodder for investigation. I never aspired to moral perfection, but I did hope to gain insight into what separates us from how we want to act and what we actually do.

Near the end of his life, Franklin reflected that orderliness continued to vex him; for me, mindfulness, the ability to be present in the moment, has proved to be my biggest bugaboo. Too often when I am distracted or overburdened, I lash out at a loved one, turn a deaf ear to a legitimate concern, or complicate a simple transaction because my mind is elsewhere.

In this I am not alone. In 1973, psychologists John Darley and Daniel Batson enlisted a group of seminary students in a study designed to understand compassion. At one point, when they told a portion of the students that they were late for an appointment, 90% of them rushed by a man in obvious distress. In their haste, some literally stepped over him. In contrast, the majority of the seminarians who believed they had plenty of time stopped and offered aid. The results were so consistent that the researchers concluded that “ethics becomes a luxury as the speed of our daily lives increases.”

The pace of the world has increased considerably since the Good Samaritan Experiment concluded more than 40 years ago. Now, our lives spin faster with each whistle, beep and chime.

“The idle man is the devil's hireling,” admonished Franklin in “Poor Richard's Almanack,” but compulsive busy-ness itself has become a curse, something Buddhist master Sogyal Rinpoche calls “active laziness” and poet David Whyte suggests makes us betray our marriage with time. Neuroscience supports the observations of ethicists, spiritual leaders and poets, for stress impairs the production of oxytocin, a hormone and neurotransmitter deemed the “moral molecule” for its role in empathy and trustworthy behavior. Psychopaths don't respond to oxytocin; stress reduces its effectiveness in us all. To say that modern life is driving us crazy carries an element of hyperbole, but is grounded in scientific fact.

Yet mindfulness is possible in even the most trying circumstances. Think of Antoinette Tuff, the Georgia high school bookkeeper who looked up from her desk to find an enraged 20-year-old man bursting through the door. He aimed an AK-47 at her and said, “We are all going to die today.”

She was terrified but stayed calm, following his instructions to call 911 and a news station with such poise and respect that she won his trust.

She began to talk to him as she would her own son. “Sweetheart,” she said when he started shooting at police, “come back in here.… It's gonna be you and me, and we will work this thing out.” Eventually she persuaded him to surrender.

Tuff's story captures that ineffable moment when the future hangs in abeyance, waiting to be determined by human action. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence calls this a meta-moment, the “space in time” between when something happens and we react.

Often, we respond reflexively, if at all — we step over the wounded man, we lash out blindly, we cower in fear. But with training it is possible to summon an internal calm that seems to expand the moment and lets us choose our response. For example, for years, Tuff had started each day with Bible study, prayer and meditation, what she later described as anchoring herself in the Lord.

Although Tuff's practice was religious, it doesn't have to be. Mindfulness training is available through spiritual communities, hospitals, schools and even within corporations and the military. The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence has developed a curriculum used in hundreds of schools that has improved cooperation, increased academic success and lessened bullying.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword — a Google search turns up more than 25 million hits. But it is something we can learn. As a way to fine-tune our responses, it may be the one “technology” that allows us to survive our current epidemic of distraction. It can improve our relationships. It might even save our lives.

Teresa Jordan is the author of "The Year of Living Virtuously (Weekends Off): A Meditation on the Search for Meaning in an Ordinary Life."

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