Speed FilingLast evening on the radio, I heard an excerpt of a TED talk. The topic was how infants and toddlers think and learn, presented by Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at UC Berkeley.
She marveled at the ability of toddlers to take in reams of disparate information: one moment a crawly bug, another an airplane high above, then a boo-boo, then a kitty cat. They are terrible at focusing and drilling deeply into one subject, but are far more adept than we adults at allowing in and noticing all manner of information, the vast majority of which we more advanced grown-ups filter out… they have “a lantern of consciousness rather than a spotlight,” she explains.
We all get a little glimpse of this phenomenon when we go to a very different culture, as is the case on vision trips to a developing country. We haven’t yet created categories for the plethora of new stimuli coming at us–those odd smells, sounds and living conditions, so we can’t easily categorize and dismiss these in order to focus on the few ruly “important” bits, like the presentation a community member might be making about child mortality rates and programming strategies.
It’s not uncommon for a visitor to wander off from the group or become absorbed in a game with children, whether from overload or fascination. Sometimes the “Agenda Trenda” part of me wants to grouse at the errant visitor, “Hey, you’re missing the best part!”
And at the end of a week on these trips, we can’t believe all we experienced – it seems more like we were there a month!
Frankly, these trips can be exhausting. We need time to process, to sift through our memories of all the experiences and information and people we encountered. We hold onto it all, not sure what is most important and not wanting to exclude or ignore any possible “treasure.”
Children it seems are on a constant treasure hunt. No wonder they need so much sleep!
The morning after hearing this talk, I read a meditation from Richard Rohr that reminded me of it and highlighted one aspect of my adult mindset I need to “unlearn.” Like many of us, I can pride myself on being a “quick study” of other people and new situations. We adults are adept at categorizing each new situation or person we meet. We have pre-constructed strategies for dealing with each category and are able to glean the key information and respond quickly. We believe our response is usually the correct one; but when we turn out to be wrong, we’re quick to forgive ourselves, knowing that this skill allows us to move through many situations quickly.
One could say we are fast at filing. Heck, we might want to apply to be an administrative assistant to God, because in fact we often do the very same thing with new situations that bump into our religious convictions. This is sinful, that’s apostasy, this is theological error, this is good, that is bad. We are fast, we are certain, we are comfortable. We find people who agree with us, and we play Speed Filing for God.
But Rohr calls us to something different perhaps, something higher and holier than being adept filers into pre-assigned categories:
Contemplation is a panoramic, receptive awareness whereby you take in all that the situation, the moment, the event offers without eliminating anything. That does not come naturally. You have to work at it and develop practices whereby you recognize your compulsive and repetitive patterns.
It seems we are addicted to our need to make distinctions and judgments, which we actually call “thinking!” Most of us think we are our thinking, yet almost all thinking is compulsive and habitual. After a while you see that this kind of thinking is not going to get you very far, simply because reality is not all about you and your preferences!
Non-dual consciousness is about receiving and being present to the moment and to the now exactly as it is, without judgment, without analysis, without critique, without your ego deciding whether you like it or whether you don’t like it. It is a much more holistic knowing, where your mind, heart, soul, and senses are open and receptive to the moment just as it is.
Just like the TED speaker pointed out, maybe there is something to be learned from little children. To survive in the fast-paced adult world, we needed to learn the skill of ignoring most information much of the time in order to grasp quickly what was expected of us in a given moment. But in the process, we’ve abandoned the critical skill of paying attention to extra information. “Extraneous” we label it, but sometimes it’s the very information that might take us to new places. Just like how sometimes it’s that unplanned but precious encounter not on the formal agenda—talking with an impoverished child or being invited into a humble hovel—which might prove to be the most impactful memory in a travelers’ cross-cultural journey.
There’s an invitation here. And an exhortation. As I recall, somewhere Jesus says unless we change and become like little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of God (see Matthew 18:3). Maybe Jesus wasn’t nearly as afraid as we sometimes are of information that doesn’t neatly fit into our pre-defined categories.
Personally, I sense a gentle invitation to once again be open and expansive to something higher than Speed Filing; something childlike that allows the Spirit to still speak.