So much has changed in the last few years. Sort of. The themes are still the same. The props are different. More in tune with the times. And more disturbing than ever. Not too long ago, it was perfectly “routine” to pull out a packet of smokes out of your jeans pocket before taking a seat —in a coffee shop, a doctor’s waiting room, or a board meeting. These days, the cigarette box has been replaced with (or comes with in our part of the world) one —or more— pill boxes. A recent encounter has led me to believe that they have metamorphosed into a badge of honour. The pills, the endless email and message notifications on the smartphone, the dark circles under the eyes, the headaches, the blood pressure, and the 15-hour work days have become not only ordinary but essential components of our worthiness and value in today’s world.
“What the market values is the ability to produce things that are rare and valuable.” —Dr. Cal Newport
It is no coincidence that this quote has been sent to me over 10 times this past week. [Thank you sender. I get the message.] I first came across the work of Dr. Cal Newport a few years ago when I read his insightful book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. I recall daydreaming about “unique” gifts and output, only to quickly be called back to the present with a social media notification confirming to me my incredible “uniqueness” for posting a picture of my lunch or my yoga pose headlining my more unique inspirational quote. The thrill of my “uniqueness” lasts seconds, until my wall overflows with exquisite images of everyone else’s lunch and yoga postures. In an effort to numb the heavy dullness of my ordinariness, I spend another two hours diving into other people’s “unique” worlds. No rare nor valuable work is produced.
To be rare is to be anything but routine and ordinary. It is in fact ordinariness that is slowly dimming our light. It feels as if humanity has resigned to its fate of inevitable dis-ease as we age. We have even programmed our children to function in a state of hyper-stress fuelled by a stream of endless distraction without even recognizing that their nervous system has become severely compromised. My daughter experienced a panic attack on the way to school yesterday when she thought she forgot her phone at home. Her response triggered in me a deep sense of shame for facilitating this technological addiction. When she had her phone back in her hand —like the pacifier in her baby days— she calmed down for a few seconds before she resumed to broadcast her life on Snapchat. We are still on live.
It is no wonder that many people have difficulty feeling present and connected in their spiritual practices. 1.8 billion Muslims take time out of their distracted lives to pray five times a day. Presence/mindfulness/connection is an integral practice of worship in Islam, yet is sadly elusive for most. In my experience, I have found more moments of true connection since diving into my yoga journey and learning a variety of tools to help me drop back into my body. I was recently asked for advice to bring mindfulness and connection back into prayer. I recommended sitting quietly in silence, for a few minutes everyday. Starting a new practice will help our brain create new neuropathways. These pathways will hopefully help us find stillness and connection in other areas of our lives too.
After sitting in a conference room listening to tens of Powerpoint presentations, the mind naturally tires of the monotony, shuts down to the conference room reality and its pill-popping presenters, and starts to wander elsewhere. I watch my kids and wonder how they can produce any coherent work [I only ask for coherence at this point, nothing more] when they are listening to music, chatting to friends, and recording stories on Snapchat while they write a satirical essay on media culture.
Contrast that with a run or a walk in nature. Or any other physical activity that moves your body and by implication your creative energy. This simple activity opens the mind to the space of peace. And that is when moments of inspiration and connection unfold.
Our normal, homeostatic state of existence has been compromised. We are in a chronic state of stress, marked by elevated levels of stress hormones that maintain dangerous heart rates and blood pressure. We are only meant to withstand these levels for very short periods of time. (The time it takes for us to figure out a way to flee an imminent attack by a lion, for example.)
The human body holds the key. Are we open and willing to use it? Take the human kidneys as an example. Prolonged high animal protein intake can have detrimental repercussions on the balanced filtration system of our kidneys, resulting in inducing a state called hyper-filtration, which really means a dramatic increase in the workload of the kidney. As Dr. Michael Greger explains in his book How Not to Die:
“Hyper-filtration isn’t harmful if it occurs only occasionally. We all have built-in reserve kidney function —so much so that people can live with only one kidney. The human body is thought to have evolved the capacity to handle intermittent large doses of protein from our remote hunting and scavenging days. But now many of us are ingesting large doses of animal protein day after day, forcing our kidneys to call on their reserves continuously. Over time, this unrelenting stress may explain why kidney function tends to decline as people age, predisposing even otherwise healthy people to progressive deterioration of kidney function.”
Ordinary is not serving us. Continuing on a path that is leading us to carry packets of medication in our pockets and expensive visits to international clinics thriving on our ordinariness is a dangerous route. What we are suffering from is a case of chronic hyper-inflammation. Pills manage the physical symptoms. Smartphones, “busyness”, monotonous routine, and endless work hours numb the pain and lull us into a spiral of resignation and self-pity. Eventually, more pills are needed to manage the side effects of the first pills. Two packets turn into 4. As our threshold for noise expands, the volume of the distractions increases. And our ability to produce anything close to coherent becomes more and more illusory.
It is not a rite of passage to carry medication around. Sneaking peaks at the needy smartphone is disrespectful and distracting. It hijacks profound human connections, when in fact this is what we need. Visible manifestations of stress are not a metric of success but a clear wake-up call. And boasting 15 hours of “busyness” is most definitely not a positive reflection of expertise, wealth, nor ability to produce unique work.
I recently learned that giving advice goes against the principles of psychotherapy. Thank God I chose a different path. My advice is simple. It is what I tell myself everyday, especially when I catch myself spiralling into the abyss of distractions. To be extraordinary is to reclaim our power. We are divine creations. Our worth and value are measured in their divine attributes of uniqueness and light: glowing health and 100% presence. To be unique, in fact, is to activate from within the infinite energy that unleashes one’s own —unique— creative juices and radiates to exude this light out into the universe.