Every day I want to speak with you. And every day something more important
calls for my attention – the Google search, the downloads, the collapsible
dog bowl I need to buy on Amazon.
Even now I can hardly sit here
among the notifications and updates, the garbage trucks outside
screeching and banging.
The mystics say you are as close as my own breath.
Why do I flee from you?
My days and nights pour through me like complaints
and become a story I forgot to tell.
Help me. Even as I write these words I am planning
to switch again as soon as I finish this sentence.
Yesterday, whilst doing something on my scheduled list of activities, perhaps some housework, or reciting my poetry liturgy as I call it, the various poems I try and keep alive in memory by repeating them over and again each day, I felt an overwhelming urge to drop that chosen/assigned activity, and instead walk over to my computer and start writing these words you are hearing now. I held back, because I am trying at the moment to practice the art of indistractability, as Nir Eyal calls it, whose book Indistractable I’ve been reading recently.
Today however, with a scheduled 50 minutes for musing and writing, the time I have finally given myself the to do the thing I was hankering and hungering for yesterday, I am now assailed by the opposite urge: the urge to do anything but write. I am perplexed by this. As perplexed by Marie Howe in her poem “Prayer”, as perplexed as the narrator of Herman Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener, who becomes increasingly exasperated with his new employee answering every request put to him with the words: “I would prefer not to”.
My mind, and I suspect yours too, is full of I-would-prefer-not-to’s. Exercise? I would prefer not to. Meditation? I would prefer not to. Writing an essay for school or University? I would prefer not to. Phoning a relative to see how they’re doing? I would prefer not to. You get the idea.
I find this incredibly frustrating. As it seems does Marie Howe. Every day we want to do something productive and valuable with our time, and every day “something [seemingly] more important calls for our attention.” What’s the deal here? Why when doing Valued Activity B, does my mind tell me it would be more fun or stimulating to be doing Activity C? And then when you switch to doing Activity C, why do activities X, Y, Z now beckon like some always-better, always-more-tantalising Shangri La?
For this is how it goes in the economy of the mind, driven by the continual desire to get an upgrade on experience. Forget what you’re doing now, the mind says, what’s coming next will always be better. This new, preferred activity presents itself to the mind like a particularly tasty piece of bait. As in: “Hey look: an opportunity to sate your curiosity with Google, or make a cup of tea, or check your social media feeds to see if something more interesting is happening out there than in here, in the forum internum of the psyche. But we usually fail to see the hook buried in the bait, for each time we shift our focus, shift our activity, we invariably trade in a potentially finishable, potentially satisfyingly enterprise (at least if had we stuck with it) for one that has yet to be started, and even less-so to be completed.
Why is this? Why do we flee from those activities we once inaugurated with hope and expectation, the hope and expectation of pleasure to come? Why give these up so quickly for ever-new thoughts, ever-new activities, equally auspicious, and no doubt equally primed to tarnish or lose lustre in our experience of them?
Eyal deftly puts his finger on the essential problem by pitting two philosophies of motivation against each other. He agrees that there is some truth to Jeremy Bentham’s commonsensical notion that “nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure”: we move towards the hoped-for pleasure, and away from the present pain, always in the anticipation of increasing our hedonic gains.
However we also need to factor in Epicurus who perhaps gets us closer to the heart of the matter. Rather than suggesting that our behaviour is equally, or even alternately prompted by carrots and sticks, the seeking of pleasure and avoidance of pain, Epicurus aligns the two categories, or rather folds them into each other. By pleasure, what we really mean, says Epicurus, is the “absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul”.
Pleasure, according to Epicurus, is not, as we may intuitively believe, about experiencing or having something we want (although occasionally that is the case). Rather, it is about experiencing or having (even more so: not-having) something we don’t want: pain.
And let’s not forget, to slightly warp that Troggs or Wet Wet Wet song: “We feel it in our fingers / We feel it in our toes / The pain that’s all around us / And so the feeling grows.” By pain, I don’t necessarily mean the excruciating, tragic pain of a bullet wound, or a break up, just common-a-garden pain: painful thoughts, painful feelings, painful or uncomfortable sensations in the body and mind.
“Simply put,” writes Eyal, ‘the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behaviour, while everything else is a proximate cause.” Perhaps to put that even more succinctly in order to let this somewhat devastating (I think) recognition sink in, here’s another way of saying that: everything we do, or nearly everything, at least every unplanned action, begins with the desire to get away from something we don’t want to do, or feel, or think about, or experience. As the eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson once wrote, “My life is one long escape from myself.”
And yet, even when attempting to escape ourselves by doing fundamentally meaningful and at times pleasurable activities (for me: reciting poetry, gardening, writing/reading, hanging out with my dog pal Max) this still entails different forms of discomfort, discomfort which the mind perceives as a signal to shift my energy towards something else, something that conceptually (for this is happening purely in the domain of the conceptual, the mind) appears at that moment to be easier, or more pleasurable, and thus qualitatively “better” for us and our lives, a “better” use of our time.
That betterness however, presented like catnip to our minds, is like a lot of mind-stuff, a somewhat slippery-buttery illusion. The illusion being that this “absence of pain in the body and of trouble in the soul” is in essence achievable. What invariably happens however is that as soon as we swap one focus of attention to another, the same unravelling process starts once more within the new domain, along with the same attendant, thought-scrambling discomforts, the same triggering push or pull, taking us off track. And on we go, round and round in a vicious circle of entrapment and escape, of bait and switch. At least this is how most neuroscientists and psychologists now think this cognitive mechanism works when we focus on something that requires a little or a lot of effort for us to do. We know this because it doesn’t seem to occur as frequently when doing effortless, or more passive activites like watching tv, or engaging with social media, or surfing online: activities that require very little of us, other than to be present whilst they tell us what to focus on and think about.
The problem with this relentless search-engendered focusing and refocusing in our minds as a ploy to attain the absence of pain in the body and trouble in the soul, is that it is in no way commensurate with the actual pain-informed bodies and minds we inhabit. When do we ever entirely, for a protracted period of time, experience the absolute absence of pain, or at least some form of niggling discomfort?
We do occasionally of course, especially in trance-like distracted states, or in activities where we find FLOW (more on that later). But usually some form of discomfort is always present within us, and around us. “We feel it in our fingers / We feel it in our toes / The pain that’s all around us / And so the feeling grows.” And it has to be this way, to some extent, as pain is an incredibly useful feedback mechanism. Pain can sometimes, but not always, alert us to the fact that’s something’s amiss, that we really do need to shift our attention either to the thing giving us pain, or away from it. Often we miscalculate, applying blanket rules (pain bad, no pain good), and that can get in the way of us doing things that are inherently painful, but in important and necessary ways.
Even as I type these words standing in front of my laptop, I am aware of sweat pooling under my arms (not an especially pleasurable feeling) and blood pooling in my feet, which then after 10 minutes results in shins and thighs beginning to complain. And that’s just the body. Every sentence I write, my mind more often than not finds fault with, or finds the ideas or words insubstantial, not possessing enough heft and weight for what I want to convey.
Each of these thoughts or feelings is a kind of stone in the road of our planned and valued activity. I’m thinking here of that Carlos Andrade Drummond poem “In The Middle of The Road”, translated by Elizabeth Bishop, which goes:
In the middle of the road there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
there was a stone
in the middle of the road there was a stone.
Never should I forget this event
in the life of my fatigued retinas.
Never should I forget that in the middle of the road
there was a stone
there was a stone in the middle of the road
in the middle of the road there was a stone.
Howe, in her poem feels guilty because she has aspirations to become or to follow the path of a spiritual being, a seeker, a thinker, a deep-listener, a creative, heir-apparent to poetry or prayer. She is attracted to these states of being (which also require a good amount of doing) because she no doubt recognises that to give ourselves to an activity such as poems or prayers, or anything that codifies, regulates, or puts in some kind of order our experience, anything that requires us to surrender our selves, those “beautiful, arrogant egos refusing to disappear” (Kim Addonizio) anything that requires us consciously, willingly, attentively to step outside of our body-mind complexes, our teleological time packaged calendars and to-do lists, to commune with our deepest depths of being, with God (if that’s a word that encompasses this experience for you) or with the unconscious, or with joy; any time we do this, our minds will fight us in some way.
I would prefer not to, they say.
Why, we ask.
I’d like to suggest that our minds can’t answer this question, because the answer often stems from our deepest, default, unconscious motivations. And the deepest of those, is to put a halt to any activity that engenders some form of discomfort or pain. Even if it’s the pain of a muscle being stretched deeply in a yoga pose, or a mind being stretched in meditation, a pain that is not only necessary to our well-being, but essential.
We see Howe’s mind doing this without conscious knowledge in the poem: every time she gears herself for some necessary, meaningful intercourse in the shape of a valued activity, she begins to experience some form of discomfort: an emotion like boredom, or emptiness, or frustration; a troubling, or distracting thought; a physical urge such as hunger or tiredness. In a bid to get away from that discomfort, that chaotic state which feels grim, life-depleting (because it is!), she, like we, shifts her energies to another activity in the hope that this one, this one will deliver the absence of pain and trouble we fantasise about. Maybe this activity will allow her, or us, to ride the wave of a new-improved, bigger, better experience in a joyous burst of becoming; the way a surfer rides a wave, or a singer rides the crests of a melody, or a dancer the rhythms of a beat. .
Howe understand all too well what it is she needs to cultivate well-being (prayer, meditation, deep inner-listening), as perhaps a number of us now do. The internet, self-help books, psychotherapy are all awash with good advice. But due to the mind’s compulsive itchiness in the presence of discomfort, less cognitively-demanding claims on her or our attention are usually given precedence: “the drugstore, the beauty products, the luggage
I need to buy for the trip”. If you know the poem well, or look it up, you will notice that I have changed her distractions to things that often distract me when I’m trying my best to stay on-track with a chosen task. If you ever choose to learn this poem by heart, as I have, I suggest putting in your own bugbear distractions to make the poem truly yours.
I am ashamed to admit how much time I spend stocking up on films and tv shows I will never watch, or books that I will probably never read, or “researching” future purchases online like Jiffy pellets for growing seeds (that was at least an hour yesterday), or different kinds of collapsible, portable dog bowls (a good chunk of time the day before). Both of these time-spent-online intervals, because they were unplanned, no doubt interrupted a valued, but more effortful activity I had chosen to do at the time, and wanted to do (at least conceptually), a meaningful/valued/planned task, as opposed to a serendipitous, pain-avoiding distraction.
At this point we might might feel inclined to blame both our distractions, and the distraction-fabricator which we call our minds, blame the downloads, the books-bought-to-read-but-never-opened, Candy Crush, or the hours spent browsing on Amazon, the boxset binges. But these are all proximate causes for our distracted wandering, our inattentive slippages. “These proximate causes,” writes Eyal, ”have something in common—they help us deflect responsibility onto something or someone else.” This may bring some temporary relief, absolution, or amnesty when we face our inner managers, or inner critics who are frequently annoyed by this behaviour (“What’s your problem! Why can’t you stick to your bloody routine!”), but unfortunately, “without understanding and tackling root causes,” writes Mr Indistractable, “we’re stuck being helpless victims in a tragedy of our own creation.”
“Why do I flee from you?” Marie Howe incredulously asks herself, seeking a root cause as opposed to a proximate cause. “Help me,” she says to us at the end of the poem. “Even as I write these words I am planning / to rise from the chair as soon as I finish this sentence,” intent, as we all are, to do the valued, meaningful thing, but probably waylaid on the way to doing it by that cup of tea, or a WhatsApp notification that’s just popped up on our phones, or the thought of something more immediately gratifying.
Our brains, which account for only 2% of our bodyweight, use up 20% of available energy. In order for them to work as efficiently as possible, they are always trying to save energy, going into the equivalent of Low-Power mode on your phone, shutting down all but the most essential processes in order to conserve juice. The word we colloquially use to describe this is “laziness”, but this is perhaps not a fair description. Our brains are by default chronically lazy when it comes to anything that takes a sizeable amount of effort or energy to. “I would prefer not to,” is the mind’s default response to these activities when the activity actually needs to be done.
When we’re in the realm of “I might do this” however, or “I’d like to do this” our beckoning future activities seem inordinately, even indisputably possible. This is because to have an idea, or a thought, costs us nothing. Thoughts are like air, completely free and accessible to the brain at all times, which is why the brain, the mind, often splurges on them. Click, click, click, I’ll-do-that, I’ll-do-that, I’ll-do-that. Yes, yes, yes. Hurrah-me, hurrah-me, hurrah. But the carrying-out of those actions exist in a different realm. Which is why gettings thoughts, plans and actions to correspond is often, as you may have noticed, fiendishly difficult.
It seems that our minds confuse thinking or planning with doing. Planning is the necessary architect for doing, but rarely the begetter of action. Even commencing an activity, Marie or we have planned to do, need to do, want to do, would like to do (prayer, housework, writing, checking in with a loved one, marking essays, weeding, exercise, whatever), often exists in its purely conceptual state and never comes into being. This is because it is a plan, a thought, it is a nothing, other than a pointing our bodies and minds in a certain direction. In order to get closer to doing, to actually walking in the direction we’ve pointed, perhaps we need some kind of defocusing process, something that leaches all possibility out of all the other activities, in all the other quantum universes in our mind, so that can we stay focused on just this one thing, for five minutes, or half an hour, or more.
Perhaps this is a task our minds are not particularly well suited for? Or rather, the discomfort we feel when we shift from making some effort at a planned activity to one designed to alleviate the effort of that activity by doing something less effortful (tv, playing with our phones, snacking) often just replaces that acute discomfort (the discomfort of effort) with a dulled version of another form of pain: torpor, indolence, inaction.
Another word for all of this is entropy. Entropy is a word that comes from the realm of physics, statistical mechanics to be more precise, foundational to our knowledge of thermodynamic systems, a cornerstone of our so-called modernity, not only generative of the industrial revolution and our current technological culture, but at some level of everything material and immaterial in the known universe. At least as much as we can tell for now.
Let me play for you the physicist Jim Al-Khalili introducing this topic in his 1995 documentary Order and Disorder: What is Energy? which you can watch in full on YouTube if you like. He starts off by setting the scene in terms of recognising the importance of Energy in our lives and in that of our planet, the energy that moves us and everything else, that does things that matter, to matter, or as we might say “gets things done”:
“Energy is vital to us all. We use it to build the structures that surround and protect us. We use it to power our transport and light our homes. And even more crucially, energy is essential for life itself. Without the energy we get from the food we eat, we die. But what exactly is energy, and what makes it so useful to us?
In attempting to answer these questions, scientists would come up with a strange set of laws (the laws of thermodynamics) that would link together everything from engines, to humans, to stars. It turns out that energy, so crucial to our daily lives, also helps us makes sense of the entire universe.”
He then goes onto explain how all forms of energy are “destined to degrade and fall apart”, to move from order to disorder. This universal law of things moving from order (low entropy) to disorder (high entropy) is a fundamental law of the universe, and of all matter contained within it. It is rarely discussed though outside of physic, perhaps because it has only been named and comprehended in the last 150 years or so.
Before this the idea of disorder, of degradation, of things moving inexorably from “good” (i.e. ordered) to bad (i.e. disordered) was conceived of in a moral or ethical realm, in terms of religion or karma. But the law of entropy goes deeper than our cultural or philosophical musings, for it affects not only the kinetic energy of a moving object, the chemical energy released when a fuel burns, or when the neurons in our mind are fired up by collisions with the world of our own internal states, but also the radiant energy conveyed by light, as well the energy of an emotion, of all emotions, such as love or sadness which we carry in our bodies, our minds, as well as in our metaphorical hearts.
Before the discovery of entropy, we and the other phenomena of our world, appeared at times to be inefficient or janky in some way, but now it turns out we’re not inefficient, or lazy, or disordered in the sense of both physical and mental disorders (sorry DSM-V), but rather we, like everything else, are lumps of matter, contingent as all the other lumps of matter are, to the physical laws of the universe, which means to the laws of entropy. And indeed, if it hadn’t gone this way, we would not be here. That which we call evolution is also powered by this chaotic, disordered law of energy; it’s nature’s way (if you like) of mixing things up, creating new possibilities through and entropy and chaos, new connections, shapes and forms.
Here’s Al-Khalili on entropy as a driving force of evolution:
“If everything degrades, if everything becomes disordered, you might be wondering how it is that we exist? How exactly did the universe manage to create the exquisite complexity and structure of life on earth? Contrary to what you might think, it’s precisely because of the second law that all this exists. The great disordering of the cosmos gives rise to its complexity.”
““The first cell felt no call to divide,” the poet Sarah Lindsay reminds us in her poem “Origin”:
Fed on abundant salts and sun,
still thin, it simply spread,
rocking on water, clinging to stone,
a film of obliging strength.
Its endoplasmic reticulum
was a thing of incomparable curvaceous length;
its nucleus, Golgi apparatus, RNA
magnificent. With no incidence
of loneliness, inner conflict, or deceit,
no predator or prey,
it had little to do but thrive,
draw back from any sharp heat
or bitterness, and change its pastel
colors in a kind of song.
We are descendants of the second cell.
And that second cell, you might argue emerged as a glitch, a fuck-up, an entropic “mistake” in the closed system of unicellular life. The thermodynamic laws of energy, of which entropy is the spanner (both benign and malign) in the works, is we now know a universal law, which every particle of matter is beholden to, including every cell in our body, along with every thought and feeling generated by those mamallian cells. Energy and entropy are the ultimate is-what-it-is of our existence, the bedrock of everything we experience in awareness.
An older word for the phenomenon we now call entropy is chaos. Here’s Lulu Miller reading the first paragraph of her book Why Fish Don’t Exist:
“Picture the person you love the most. Picture them sitting on the couch, eating cereal, ranting about something totally charming. Like how it bothers them when people sign their emails with a single initial instead of just taking those four extra keystrokes to finish the job. Chaos will get them. Chaos will crack them from the outside with a falling branch, a speeding car, a bullet. Or unravel them from the inside with the mutiny of their very own cells. Chaos will rot your plants and kill your dog and rust your bike. It will decay your most precious memories, topple your favorite cities, wreck any sanctuary you can ever build. It’s not if, it’s when. Chaos is the only sure thing in this world. The master that rules us all. My scientist father taught me early that there is no escaping the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy is only growing, it can never be diminished, no matter what we do. A smart human accepts this truth. A smart human does not try to fight it.”
But of course, even smart humans do try and fight it. At some level, everyone who comes and talks to me about whatever is going wrong with their lives, as they perceive it, or I perceive it, is having a discussion about entropy, even though we rarely call it that. We call it anxiety. We call it depression. We call it existential pain and suffering. But at its heart, in the most fundamental way, it is chaos, it is entropy. It is the state of all being. And we are all fighting it, fighting it as if our lives depended on winning. Spoiler altert: there is no winning over entropy, but there is perhaps something to be gained in certain psychological strategies designed to immunise us for discrete periods of time (maybe only an hour or two) against entropy’s chaotic force. These strategies are, I believe, what we should focus on when entropy, as it must, takes over.
ENTROPY IN THE MIND
Never having studied basic physics, an educational glitch borne out of emigration and the non-mandatory study of science in the British high-school system, the first time I heard about entropy was through my readings in psychology, especially the work of the Hungarian-American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his book Flow, where he describes both the psychology underpinning flourishing, and well-being, those upbeat, “happy” states of activity (flow) versus the less happy, more turbulent states which he categorises as psychic entropy.
Csikszentmihalyi’s genius was to recognise that our attention is a form of psychic energy, not the kind connected to tarot cards, crystal balls and tie-die clothing, but rather the way in which this thing we call “our attention” selects the relevant bits of information from potentially millions of external and internal stimuli (everything happening outside our skin parcels, as well as within them: thoughts, feelings, sounds, visuals, bodily sensations) making of them a kind of , or structure, or story, which we then tell ourselves and other people about what it means to be alive, to be us living our lives here and now.
One might also say that attention’s job is to retrieve appropriate references from memory in order to evaluate the inner or outer event, and then choose the “right” thing to do. Not for anyone else, but for us, the vessel that experiences our experience of being alive and conscious. The fact that our attention can be captured so quickly and sometimes so painfully by a thought or a feeling is often because the mind struggles to run these processing states simultaneously. It’s like when you drop a new album into iTunes, and all the other programmes you’re trying to run at the same time slow down considerably, or even drag to a halt.
“Retrieving information from memory storage and bringing it into the focus of awareness,” explains Csikszentmihalyi, “comparing information, evaluating, deciding—all make demands on the mind’s limited processing capacity.” Which is why when we’re on-track with an activity, in flow, staying with that activity, even if it takes some effort, often renders the best results, and is also in the long-term energy-conserving. It takes less effort to stay with something we’ve already started (even if our minds complain like fidgety urchins made to finish off their homework before they can watch cartoons on telly) than to switch our attention to something else.
William James, the father of modern psychology, was also aware of this in 1890, where in his Principles of Psychology he quotes the physicist Hermann von Helmholtz, an important figure in our understanding of entropy and thermodynamics, who writes:
“The natural tendency of attention when left to itself is to wander to ever new things; and so soon as the interest of its object is over, so soon as nothing new is to be noticed there, it passes, in spite of our will, to something else. If we wish to keep it upon one and the same object, we must seek constantly to find out something new about the latter, especially if other powerful impressions are attracting us away.”
Jenny Odell in her book “How To Do Nothing” agrees that what passes for sustained attention is actually a series of successive efforts to bring attention back to the same thing, considering it again and again with unwavering consistency. “Furthermore, if attention attaches to what is new, we must be finding ever newer angles on the object of our sustained attention—no small task.” She also quotes James echoing Helmholtz:
“Though the spontaneous drift of thought is all the other way, the attention must be kept strained on that one object until at last it grows, so as to maintain itself before the kind with ease. This strain of attention is the fundamental act of will…The whole drama is a mental drama. The whole difficulty is a mental difficulty, a difficulty with an object of our thought.”
The composer John Cage was perhaps revisiting this fifty years later when he said: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” In other words, if we can pass through the dips and falls of entropy in our energy systems, our bodies and minds, dips and falls that reveal themselves through pain and discomfort, if we can do this and come out the other side, we might discover that every activity is perfectly satisfying and generative in some circular, almost mystical manner. I think this is what the naturalist John Muir is talking about when he writes that: “Longest is the life that contains the largest amount of time-effacing enjoyment.” When we give entropy the slip, even for just 15 minutes of focused work, it is like we give time and all her demands on us the slip too.
Unfortunately we are not well placed at the moment for doing this. Everytime I switch tabs on my computer away from the forward momentum of this piece of writing to check something on google or in a book, I’m having to collapse and then rebuild the whole infrastructure anew in my space of attention, a bit like walking out of one building, it partially collapsing as we stroll into another, and so having to rebuild the previous building when we we return to it. What a slog. “Each person allocates his or her limited attention either by focusing it intentionally like a beam of energy,” writes Csikszentmihalyi, a beam we might refer to as an ordered or low-entropy state. Or alternatively, we “diffuse” our energy in “desultory, random movements”, aligned with disorder and entropy. “The shape and content of a life,” he explains, ‘depend on how attention is used.” This, like all great truths sounds remarkably, even forgettably simple, but holds in it perhaps the key to mental and physical well-being as we know it.
And here’s James again, saying pretty much the same thing at the end of the 19th Century as Csikszentmihalyi was at the end of the 20th:
“Millions of items of the outward order are present to my senses which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind—without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest [or attention] alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground intelligible perspective, in a word. It varies in every creature, but without it the consciousness of every creature would be a gray chaotic indiscriminateness, impossible for us even to conceive.”
Without careful, focused attention, we are simply adrift, lost in entropy, lost in pain and discomfort. Another word for this is suffering.
Framed in this way, we can now start to see how entropy unravels the best laid of plans of mice and men (and women), which more often than not, go awry. In fact that saying -the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry- comes from another poem, one by the Scots poet Robert Burns writing in the no-less tumultuous 18th Century. In his poem, “To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest With the Plough”, he addresses the poor homeless mouse in his lovely Scots dialect as “wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie! (in modern English: “Little, cunning, cowering, timorous beast, / Oh, what a panic is in your breast!” – better in Scots, isn’t it?).
Here’s Alastair Turnbull giving the background to this poem:
“It was actually based on a true incident. Robert was out ploughing the field on his father’s rented farm and he went through a mouse’s nest. He was really upset by this. In fact, in an interview many years later with his brother Gilbert, Gilbert said that Robert came into the hourse really upset that he’d done this, and immediately started writing the poem “To A Mouse” which he finished on the same day.”
I find this story, and the whole poem incredibly touching. You can hear Alastair reciting the poem in Scots as well as modern English on the link I give in my shownotes. The poem is especially moving for me today also because it serendipitiously chimes in with an experience I myself had with a “wee sleekit cowring timrous beastie”.
Whilst walking Mr Max around the block in order for him to do his business, I spotted in the middle of the pavement a baby mouse, no bigger than a 50 pence coin that at first looked like it was dead, but then on closer inspection revealed that it was just lost, or confused, or abandoned in some way. I stood watching it from a distance for a few minutes, but its stress response (Freeze!) had immobilised the poor little thing, and I feared that it was easy prey for a cat. So I gently pushed it into an empty biscuit box I found in a recycling bin and walked around the block looking for somewhere safe to put it. More on that mousie in a bit.
The Robert Burns poem ends thus (in the translation from the Scottish dialect to modern English):
But Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes of mice and men
Go often awry,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
For promised joy!
Still you are blessed, compared with me!
The present only touches you:
But oh! I backward cast my eye,
On prospects dreary!
And forward, though I cannot see,
I guess and fear!
The question then, at least in terms of seeking well-being might be: how to not have a life entirely shaped by entropy, even whilst recognising its unavoidable presence?
AN ANTIDOTE TO ENTROPY?
The first step of this process is perhaps to recognise just how much entropy is actually there in our psychic systems.
A very easy way to discover this is to do some simple breathing meditation. Sit down somewhere, close your eyes, focus on your breath, and watch how your mind, which you maybe thought runs in nice straight lines, starts to reveal itself as something more akin to a labyrinth, a tangled and snarled jumble of wool or string, a series of multiple forking paths, a chaotic jumble of thoughts and dreams, or repetitive monologues or inner-dialogues, fantasies and more. Here’s John Cleese giving us a glimpse into his mind rendered not in tidy sentences, created by our brains Broca Area, but rather the raw material of thought, which when aired sounds a bit like this:
Of course this is a tweaked-and-amplified-for-comedy version of what goes on in our own minds, often below the conscious threshold, but perhaps not amplified to the extent we might like to believe. Our minds are unravelling in this kind of freely-associative way all the time, and just knowing this at an experiential level, can help us, I think to have a little bit of compassion towards ourselves when beset with a particularly virulent seam of entropy.
The next step might be to create a simple routine where we consciously set for ourselves some “best” or at least good (as in valuable or meaningful to us) laid-plans, focusing on activities that we care about. And then, the hard part: taking one of those planned hours or even half an hour, setting a timer and ignoring our minds every time they chime in with an attention-switching command. This process, from the inside of the psyche, might sound something like this.
Someone Is Doing An Activity
MIND: I think you should Google that question I’ve just asked you.
MIND: Stop writing, just open a tab and do some research. You can’t write until you’ve done more research.
PERSON: No, let me finish this first.
MIND: But I’m bored, this is taking too long! And besides your feet are hurting. The dog needs walking. You don’t have time for this.
PERSON: I have time because I have planned to do this, and given myself some time to do this, and so that’s what we’re now going to do.
MIND: Well, I would prefer not to.
PERSON: I know. That’s because you’re a mind.
These are the kinds of dialogues we might want to start having with our own minds. You start your activity, notice each time mind interrupts you with a “stop-doing-this-start-doing-that-command” and then instead of succumbing to entropy, switching tack midstream to the proffered new activity, we note the interruption (I sometimes do this by writing down every time my mind interrupts me), promising our Entropic, Pain-Fleeing Mind that we will return to the suggestion later. But for now, because we really care about our writing, or gardening, or spending some time doing a jigsaw with our kids, we are not going to be dictated to by Entropy and her Favourite Adviser (our minds), dictated to by The Discomfort Shifter, the Inner-Bartleby, and instead see out, as best we can, even begrudgingly whatever it was we’d committed our selves to doing.
I find this entropy-reversing process really tricky to pull off. Again, writing this paragraph on another day, a day in which I’ve given myself 50 minutes of uninterrupted writing time to finish off the episode, every cell in my body, for reasons I know not why (other than entropy, impatience, distraction, a sunny day outside etc), every cell is telling me to stop after just fifteen minutes and head out into the sunny afternoon to do some weeding. And often, for I am no more conscientious than you, I relent.
Occasionally I don’t. It seems to help if you are able to strike a deal with your Entropic/Distracted mind, saying to it something like: “I know you have my best interests at heart, the maximisation of pleasure and minimisation of pain, and most of all the conservation of energy, but this is something I really need to or want to do, mind, even if at this point you’re not fully behind it. If that’s the case, I promise you, I will write your activity-shifting suggestion down, and then together we can re-evaluate that suggestion at [and then you pick a time]. But until then, let us try and screw our all-too-wobbly courage, our effortful attention to the sticking place; let us forges on ahead, as this sentence forges to the close of another paragraph.
Entropy, like all downers, can at times also be a friend, a refuge, teaching us lessons that we perhaps struggle in our impatient, productivity-focused world to grasp, or are wary to learn. We’re back to the mouse here, and me carrying that wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim’rous beastie of a mouse around as I did today in search of shelter close to where I’d found it, but also hopefully safe from cats and other predators. I finally decided to leave her or him in the overgrown, rubbish strewn front yard of an empty, somewhat derelict house, a house ravaged by entropy you could say. And yet amongst that debris, there was everything that I think this little mouse needed: various forms of refuge and sanctuary, food, and maybe even once she had settled down and found her bearings, a way to get back home, back to her loved ones.
I hope that is what happened after I had left her there. Hope being one of our most reliable resources against the ravages of entropy, even when it works more as a consoling placebo than an active constituent of peace and calm, of sustaining and stabilizing control, of reassuring law and order in a universe ruled by chaos and entropy.