The sons of the world consider distraction to be something innocent, but the holy fathers recognize it to be the origin of all evils. The person who has given up to distraction has, concerning all subjects and even the most important ones, a very light most superficial understanding. One who is distracted is usually inconstant. The feelings of his heart usually lack depth and strength; and therefore, they are not solid but transitory. As a butterfly flits from flower to flower so also a distracted person passes from one earthly satisfaction to another, from one vain care to another
The distracted person is a stranger to love for one’s neighbour. He indifferently looks on the misfortune of men and he lightly lays on them burdens, which are difficult to bear. Sorrows powerfully affect a distracted person, precisely because he does not expect them. He expects only joys. If the sorrow is a strong one but swiftly passing, then the distracted person soon forgets about it in the noise of amusements, but a long lasting sorrow crushes him.
Distraction itself punishes the one who is devoted to it. With time everything bores him; and he as one who has not acquired any sound understandings and fundamental impressions whatsoever is given up to a tormenting endless despondency. As much as distraction is harmful in general, it is especially harmful in the work of God and the work of salvation, which requires constant and intense vigilance and attention. “Watch and pray lest you enter into misfortune,” says the Saviour to his disciples (Matthew 26:41). “I say to all watch,” (Mark 13:21, the Saviour said to all Christianity, and therefore, he said it to us in this time.
He, who is leading a distracted life is directly contradicting the commandments of the Lord Jesus Christ with his life. All of the saints diligently fled from distraction. Constantly or at least as often as possible they were concentrated in themselves. They paid attention to the movements of the mind and heart and they directed them according to the testament of the gospel. The habit of attending to oneself keeps one from distraction, even amongst distractions which is noisy and surrounding one on all sides. The attentive person abides in solitude, even amidst a multitude of people. A certain great father who had learned by experience the benefit of attention and the harm of distraction said that without intense watchfulness over himself it is impossible to succeed in even one virtue….
The works of God, obviously, ought to be learned and examined with the greatest reverence and attention. Otherwise a person can neither examine them nor know them. The great work of God, the creation of man, and then after his fall, his restoration by redemption, ought to be well known to every Christian. Without this knowledge one cannot know and fulfil the obligations of a Christian; but the knowledge of this great work of God cannot be acquired with distraction.
The commandments of Christ are given not only to the outer man but even more to the inner man. They embrace all of the thoughts and feelings of man, all of his most subtle movements. To keep these commandments is impossible without constant vigilance and deep attention. Vigilance and attention are impossible with a distracted life. Sin and the devil who arms himself with sin subtly creep into the mind and the heart. A person must constantly be on the watch against his invisible enemies. How can he be on this watch when he is given over to distraction?
The distracted person is like a house without doors or gates. No treasure whatsoever can be kept in such a house. It is open for thieves, robbers, and harlots. The distracted life, completely full of earthly cares, gains for a person heaviness just as gluttony and surfeiting do (cf. Luke 21: 34). Such a person is attached to the earth. He is occupied with only the temporary and vain. The service of God becomes for the distracted person an irrelevant subject. The very thought about this service is something for him wild, full of darkness, and unbearably heavy….
Distraction is nourished by the unceasing effect of the bodily senses. In vain do distracted people ascribe innocence to the distracted life. With this they are unmasking the evil quality of the illness which has seized them. Their illness is so great and has so dulled the feelings of the soul, that the soul, which is sick with this disease, does not even feel its unfortunate condition.
Those who wish to learn attentiveness must forbid themselves all vain occupations. The fulfilling of one’s personal and social obligations does not enter into the formation of distraction. Distraction is always united with idleness or with occupations that are so empty that they can be undoubtedly ascribed to idleness. A beneficial occupation, especially an occupation which is one of service, and which is joined with responsibility, does not hinder one in preserving attentiveness to oneself. Rather it guides one to such attentiveness. All the more do monastic obediences lead one to attentiveness when they are fulfilled in the due manner.
Being active is the essential path to vigilance over oneself. This path is prescribed by the Holy Fathers for all persons who wish to learn attentiveness to themselves. Attentiveness to oneself ‘in deep solitude brings forth precious spiritual fruits; but for this only people of mature spiritual stature are capable, who have advanced in the struggle of piety, and who first learned attentiveness in the active life. In the active life people help a person acquire attentiveness as they remind him of violations of attentiveness. Being in a subordinate position is the best means of learning attention. No one teaches a person to attend to himself as much as his strict and prudent superior. During your occupations of service amidst people, do not allow yourself to slay time in empty conversations and foolish jokes. In your solitary occupations, forbid yourself daydreaming and soon your conscience will become sharpened and will begin to point out to you every deviation into distraction as a violation of the law of the gospel and even as a violation of good sense. Amen.
Source: Divine Ascent: A Journal of Orthodox Faith, No. 7, Presentation of the Theotokos, November 2001, pp. 123-4