REVIEW: The Wandering Mind

Ariel Evan Mayse Tradition Online

Jamie Kreiner, The Wandering Mind: What Medieval Monks Tell Us About Distraction (Liveright Publishing Company), 274 pp.

We’ve all heard it, from colleagues, friends, and loved ones. “Uh, what? I’m sorry?” A distracted voice trickling with confusion, often accompanied by a face set aglow by some type of screen or device. We are surrounded by irritants and triggers that fracture our attention; along with information overload, we are overwhelmed with pings, lights, and other technological spears that goad us to pay them mind. Silicon Valley wonks describe a phenomenon called “the race to the bottom of the brain stem”: the jousting matches between apps and companies in which the grand prize is our continuous attention. The bycatch of these efforts is endless distraction. 

A common narrative would have us think that distraction should be billed as an exclusively modern or post-modern concern. Not so, argues Jamie Kreiner’s new book The Wandering Mind, which spins a different and often counterintuitive tale. Distraction, she argues, is as old as the day is long. Kreiner explores the work of Christian monks in late Antiquity and medieval times, arguing that these religious leaders, hermits, and seekers were fiercely concerned, well-nigh obsessed, with the issue of distraction. Contending with mental obstructions, hindrances, and interruptions of all kinds, Christian spiritualists saw their task as waging war against them:

They saw distraction as a primordial struggle—partly the result of demonic antagonism, partly the result of their own misbehaving selves, and primarily the result of the fracturing of the union between God and his creation from the beginning of time. Yet despite their understanding of distraction as common to all human beings, they didn’t come to the conclusion that it was morally neutral. Instead they saw themselves as obligated to fight against it. And their struggle became something of a professional identity: stretching the mind out of the things that mattered, against the ethically inferior alternatives, was what made a monk a monk (3).

Distraction is painted as a metaphysical force, not a psychological shortcoming, and the consequences of loss of attention were many and profound. Demonic powers are allowed to roam unchecked when freighted mental trains derail, these monks claim, and God’s work is left undone. This struggle with distraction was a site of constant contention that defined their lives like a habit.

The thematic categories employed by Kreiner—world, community, body, books, memory, and mind—are quite strong, allowing her analysis to traverse time and space and bring together discussions that are often separated or siloed. The focus on Christian monastic traditions grants her volume a sense of coherence, although she wisely allows the sources to speak with their own multivocality and surfaces tensions between them. The body, for example, is a site of integrated reflection and strength, but at the same time, it is described as a stumbling block that impedes spiritual uplift and must therefore be denied through ascetic pietism. The written word can galvanize religious inquiry, but it can also distract scholars from their true aim: “they had to remind themselves that all this reading was a technology for stretching the self to God. Buried in a book, it was easy to lose sight of that” (104). Living in a community of fellow-travelers often supports the work of focus and intention, yet interpersonal connections can be burdensome and distracting in their own right. Such deliberations welcome the reader to consider the porous boundaries between self, soul, world, text, and mind. 

The scope of Kreiner’s analysis is, with very few exceptions, understandably limited to Christian monastics. A similar book might easily be written about Jewish sources struggling with these core themes. Jewish tradition has its share of religious fellowships and devotional communities, and the absence of formal monks or monastic orders does not mean that Jews are unfamiliar with distraction. Rabbinic categories like kavvana, a term whose flexible definitions can encompass “intention,” “attention,” and “awareness,” is in many respects the sustained antonym of distraction. In Jewish sources, however, one would find a much greater emphasis on the power of ritual obligations—the mitzvot and the norms of halakha—as techniques for guiding the flow of attention and concentration. These oft-repeated and highly scripted actions are also said to generate new types of somatic knowledge, a type of muscle memory, and practitioners are depicted as learning through action. Such themes are common in Jewish sources, raised to even higher prominence by the medieval Kabbalists who also developed a vast array of practices to funnel intention and ward off wayward thoughts.

The power of mind and contemplation are dominating features of countless Hasidic texts. Introspective reflection is described as the portal through which one steps into God’s presence, an approach summarized in the Ba’al Shem Tov’s famous aphorism: “you are present wherever your thoughts are—completely.”[efn_note] See Toledot Ya‘akov Yosef, Hayyei Sara (Jerusalem, 2011), 1:136.[/efn_note] The inverse is true as well: teachings attributed to the Besht describe turning one’s mind from God, even for a moment, as a grave sin.1 Figures like R. Dov Ber, the Maggid of Mezritsh described the act of prayer as a journey through spoken language into the mind’s deepest recesses. God is encountered in the seat of consciousness, as worshippers’ thoughts guide the flow of sacred vitality into the cosmos and “bring the divine mind to rest in the place where they are thinking.”2 Allowing one’s thoughts to stray during prayer, claimed the Maggid, is akin to transgressively moving beyond the Sabbath boundary (tehum).3

The mitzvot are described as embodied techniques that draw together the “scattered soul” (pizur ha-nefesh), guiding one’s attention while uniting diffuse elements of body, mind, and spirit. This process, however, is neither magical nor simple. Legends tell of the Ba’al Shem Tov being tested by a member of the Council of the Four Lands. The inquisitor was concerned by rumors that the Ba’al Shem Tov was unlettered, thus asking him to answer a question about when one must repeat certain prayers if an important section has been omitted. The Besht evaded the examination, however, and underscored a different point: “Neither you, sir, nor I need this law. Even if you, sir, repeat the prayer, you will forget it again… and I certainly shall not forget it.”4 The editor of the tale is careful to note that the questioner had, in fact, forgotten to add the relevant prayer. This lesson, set in narrative form, seems clear: kavvana does not contravene the rules of halakha, but religious intensity is not defined by conforming to its stipulations. Observing the regulations of ritual is no substitute for intention.

Hasidism offered its followers a new sense of spiritual community and a shared mystical esprit de corps, and its adherents were united by a sense of spiritual adventure and excitement in the attempt to quarry new meaning from traditional Jewish texts and practices. This emphasis on relationship and connection, called dibbuk haverim or “spiritual friendship,” is a direct outgrowth of Hasidic teachings on the power of attention. Nahmanides, the great medieval kabbalist, scholar, and jurist, could describe a connection with God (devekut) as a solitary act: “one should recall God and love for Him at all moments, not allowing one’s thought to depart from this for even one moment, whether walking on the way or lying down and arising, such that one speaks to people with mouth and tongue but their heart is not truly with them.”5 Not so in Hasidism, where the words of other human beings is described as the voice of God. As one early Hasidic leader writes: “The only way to rise to a state of holiness is to connect oneself with people of spiritual distinction, true servants of God, joining with them in their sacred service of prayer and Torah study.”6 This social doctrine has ethical implications. “One who is alone can easily come to believe that he is pious,” claimed the Baal Shem Tov, “… and this is the reason ‘it is not good for a person to be alone’ (Gen. 2:18).”7 So, too, argued John Climacus, a seventh-century Christian hermit: “A solitary horse can often imagine itself to be at full gallop but when it finds itself in a herd it then discovers how slow it actually is” (49). Isolation can foster focus and connection with the Divine, but solitude can also contribute to delusions of accomplishment and pretentious of grandeur.

Such avenues of affinity suggest that Kreiner’s monograph might have benefited from stronger comparative analysis, including theoretical connections as well as cultural moments and possible historical influences. She could have chosen to tell other stories. There is much in The Wandering Mind about book technology and its development, but little is said about broader narratives regarding about cultures of reading or notions of oral speech as a living agent of focus. She acknowledges the centrality of regimen vitae and “daily routines” (53), but does not engage in deeper reflections on the grammar of ritual, including how such marked actions impact the brain and body of their practitioners. Rituals direct attention in deliberate ways, but they also provide the mind with “room to wonder” and “wander,” spurring reflection and intellectual roaming within the embodied space of that action.8 Every book has borders, and rightly so. Kreiner’s book begins conversations rather than concluding them, making a strong argument amid prose that sparkles with readability, insight, and wit.

Scholars of Jewish Studies will, I suspect, find much wisdom and insight in this book’s probing analysis. It is, in many respects, an ideal complement to studies like Daniel Reiser’s Ha-Mare’eh ke-Mar’ah (Cherub, 2016), a much-lauded Hebrew monograph on Jewish contemplative traditions that was also published in English as Imagery Techniques in Modern Jewish Mysticism (De Gruyter, 2018). Kreiner’s volume is also an excellent companion to Michael Fishbane’s wonderful new book Fragile Finitude: A Jewish Hermeneutical Theology (Chicago, 2021), which explores how life, tradition, and text are built through the craft of attentive interpretation. Theological reflection, claims Fishbane, is “to cultivate a mind devoted to God’s all creative vitality in worldly reality, to transform all one’s acts into expressions of this focal awareness, and to speak with thoughtful intention and purpose” (1). Jewish readers of all stripes who are interested in deepening the possibilities of religious living in our day ought to read Kreiner’s book, and these others, and should take careful notes. 

It is no accident that we, modern readers, are obsessed with distraction. Kreiner suggests that this is so, at least in part, because we are indebted to the monks who saw it as an ethical and somatic dilemma, and also because we suspect “that our predecessors were better at dealing with it” (192). Perhaps, but this requires some additional nuance. Our contemporary struggles to maintain focus, attention, and concentration are an outgrowth of medieval culture just as they are a direct reaction to specifically modern technological phenomena, but in many respects our attempts are part of a much bigger human drama about contending with distraction. As infants and young children, we develop what Alison Gopnik calls “lantern consciousness,” a highly diffuse and dispersed attention that enables us to learn about the world around us. Much as we train ourselves to concentrate on particular tasks or texts, the mind is a curious instrument and it continues to wonder and wander. Reaching moments of heightened attention, concentration, skills that are key to the religious and spiritual quest, and intention is no small matter. I suspect that Kreiner is indeed correct: the monks can help us in this work because it’s a perennial story. Meet the new distraction, same as the old distraction.

Ariel Evan Mayse is assistant professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University, rabbi-in-residence of Atiq: Jewish Maker Institute, and a fellow at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality and Society. His next book is The Shores of Devotion: Law, Ritual, and Mysticism in Early Hasidism (Stanford University Press).

  1. Degel Mahane Efrayim, Kedoshim (Benei Berak, 2013), 388-389.
  2. Maggid Devarav le-Ya‘akov, ed. Rivka Schatz-Uffenheimer (Jerusalem, 1976), no. 1, p. 10.
  3. Magid Devarav le-Ya’akov, no. 8, pp. 22-23
  4. In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, eds. Ben-Amos and Mintz (Indiana University Press, 1970), no. 221, pp. 222-223.
  5. Ramban on Deut. 11:21.
  6. Ma’or va-Shemesh, Kedoshim (Jerusalem, 1992).
  7. Sefer Ba’al Shem Tov, Bereshit, no. 121 (Jerusalem, 2012).
  8.  See Jonathan Z. Smith, To Take Place: Toward Theory in Ritual (University of Chicago Press, 1987), 103; and Adam B. Seligman, et al, Ritual and its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity (Oxford University Press, 2008), 24.

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