Just One Thing

June 14, 2012

Can you do just one thing?  Without distraction, without interruption, can you use your attention to do just one thing?  My guess is that doing so would be extremely difficult for most of us.  With countless distractions competing for our attention, doing one thing at a time seems to be pointless and unproductive, if not downright impossible.  Our attention is assaulted on all fronts – television, radio, computer, phone, mobile devices, email, internet, social networks, YouTube, video games, responsibilities at work, family, children.  The list is endless.  Never before has the human race been so inundated with information.  In the last few decades the sheer amount of mental stimulation we are exposed to daily has increased exponentially, and it continues to grow with no end in sight.

But even if we didn’t have these distractions, why would we want to do just one thing at a time when we can be so much more productive by doing several things at once?  After all, if you can eat your breakfast, call your mother, and drive to work all at once, why not make the most of that time and kill three birds with one stone?

We are rapidly becoming a multitasking culture in which we have grown increasingly comfortable with performing several tasks simultaneously.  We talk on the phone, check our email, scarf down a sandwich, and text a friend all in the span of a few seconds.  Who amongst us hasn’t seen a fellow motorist fly by us on the highway at 70 mph or more while chatting on a cell phone and sipping a cup of coffee?  Or perhaps we’ve been that person…

Don’t get me wrong, I stand in awe of the human nervous system and its ability to manage (or juggle) the multiple and complex tasks that we assign to it in order to complete our daily to-do lists.  A neurologist would have a field day trying to list and categorize the processes going on in our nervous system as we perform even the simplest of everyday jobs.  Yet we continue to stack task upon task upon task in order to save time and accomplish more.  We have less time and more to get done, so it only makes sense to adapt to the challenge by finding ways to perform more efficiently.  Multitasking has become a highly valued trait amongst employees and employers in all fields.  The more you can accomplish in the shortest amount of time = the greater your productivity = the more valuable to the company you are, right?

Maybe.

As a meditation instructor and a student of consciousness, I’ve noticed a growing trend in our society.  Fewer and fewer people are able to pay attention.  I hear it regularly from my students that they can’t seem to pay attention like they once could.  They complain of foggy thinking and difficulty in recalling names or events.  Overall, they feel as if their minds just aren’t working the way they used to.  Then there’s the rise (dare I say epidemic) of ADD/ADHD throughout the country.  When I was a kid, ADD and ADHD didn’t exist, certainly not in their present form.  Children who couldn’t pay attention were labeled as hyperactive and it was a result of too much sugar in their diet, plain and simple.  Now, more and more adults are being diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, or a lack of attention.  But where’s this trend coming from?

I’m not a doctor, so I won’t go into the potential genetic or dietary causes that might be at play in these conditions.  However, I will speculate based upon my experience as a meditator.

Consider that each day we begin with a given amount of attention to use as we choose.  We use a little here, a little there, or maybe we use a lot spread out over a multitude of multitasking opportunities.  As the hours wear on, we find that the quality of our attention begins to get a little thinner.  More multitasking, more distractions, and our attention continues to wane until we wind down our day parked in front of the TV or computer.  Finally, our attention hits bottom as we lose consciousness and fall asleep.  Sadly, this cycle is all too familiar for most of us.  We drain our attention “Bank Account” to the bone every day, never making a deposit.  Over time the bank statement only gets worse as the cycle becomes a habit.  This habit not only reinforces itself, but conditions our minds and bodies down to the cellular level.  We become chronically attention deficient.

Once we’ve become used to this watering down of our attention, we are living in awareness poverty.  It’s a sad state that more and more of us are finding ourselves in, and worst of all; we consider it to be normal.  But it’s not normal.  Normal is using our awareness economically, investing it in one thing at a time and giving it our complete attention.  Doing so focuses our awareness like a narrow beam of light and allows us to really experience the object of our attention.  We can see the details, hear the nuances of the sounds, feel the textures in what we touch, smell the aromas, and taste the flavors.

The multitasking mentality takes the narrow beam of awareness and widens it to include more and more, eventually resulting in what I call flood-light consciousness.  In this state the subtle layers of experience fade into oblivion as our attention rapidly jockeys from one thing to another.  The overall quality of our awareness plummets and we become detached from the world we live in rather than feeling and having an experience of being alive.  In the long run we become less perceptive, less awake, and a foggy shadow of who and what we could be if we weren’t lost in the swamp of distractions and multitasking madness.

So what’s the answer?  How do we wade out of this murky fog that we’ve come to call home?  Outside of medication which can provide relief in the short term, but may have detrimental side effects, I would like to offer two options for making regular deposits into your awareness bank account:

1) Meditation

A regular meditation practice can work wonders for increasing the amount and quality of attention you experience in your life.  The mind is not unlike a muscle that through regular exercise can be strengthened.  By repeatedly bringing your attention back to an anchor such as a mantra or a candle flame, you build and strengthen the neural pathways associated with paying attention.  The more such behavior is reinforced, the stronger that connection becomes.  What was once difficult becomes easy.

When I tell people that I meditate, I often hear the response, “Oh, I could never do that, I just have too many thoughts.”  But this is a common misconception because thoughts are part of the meditation practice.  You have a thought; you bring your attention back to the anchor, repeat.  That’s the practice.  Each time you bring your attention back to the anchor is similar to performing a repetition when you lift a weight.  The muscle doesn’t get stronger after just one rep…you have to keep training.  So it is with your mind.  But with repeated practice, your mind and brain will respond.  In fact, recent meditation studies have clearly demonstrated that with as little as 8 weeks of meditation, the physical structure of the brain actually changes in response to the practice.

With regular meditation, awareness increases.  Best of all, the increase in surplus awareness isn’t confined to the meditation itself.  It gets carried over into your daily activity.  The world is brighter, fresher and more vibrant.  This is due in part to what in the Yoga tradition is known as Pratyahara, or withdrawal of the senses.  When you meditate, your senses are taking a time out.  Your eyes are closed, the room is quiet (hopefully) and your other senses are at rest.  The sensory repository of your mind gets some time to restore and integrate your most recent experiences.  Following this period of restful awareness, you re-emerge into the world renewed, your eyes and ears sensing the world from a fresh perspective.  You are able to focus on the here and now of the one thing you are attending to.

2) Mindfulness

Mindfulness is a practice by which we simply and deliberately put all of our awareness on what we are doing, moment by moment.  It is essentially, doing just one thing.  As opposed to a formal sitting meditation practice, mindfulness is about embracing the fullness in every moment of the day.  Walking, eating, breathing, working, speaking, all of these activities can be mindful practices.  Mindfulness is just another word for awareness; consciously choosing to pay attention to what we are doing.  It’s the opposite of the mindless multitasking mentality that is so common in our world.

An average day is filled with opportunities for mindfulness.  Driving to work can be a mindful and meditative experience.  Turn off the radio, put down the cell phone, and simply drive.  Feel the experience of the car beneath you, the steering wheel vibrating in your hands.  Listen to the hum of the engine or the wind passing by outside.  Just drive.  Initially, this might seem dull or boring.  But this is only due to our conditioning that has taught us to believe that we must have constant and continual stimulation.  We’re so used to sensory overload and immediate gratification that we’ve lost sight of the amazing wonder in each moment.  Or as William Blake says so eloquently,

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a Heaven in a wild flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

As with meditation, mindfulness retrains the brain to embrace the fullness of every moment, helping us put our complete attention on the richness of this experience.  Continued practice gradually reconditions our nervous system, strengthening connections in our brains for living more mindfully.  We learn how to feel our way through the world rather sleep walking through it.  This is what it truly means to “Be here now.”

One of four great paths to union in the Yoga tradition is known as Karma Yoga, or the Yoga of Service.   This path is especially powerful in cultivating one-pointed, present moment awareness.  It reminds us that we are all instruments of the eternal and infinite being.  As such every breath you take and every action you take is a divine movement of the infinite.  I have come to understand this concept in recognizing that if everything we do is in service to and belongs to the infinite field of consciousness or God, then our actions will automatically be impeccable.  Imagine, if you were to perform every action as if it were for God (whatever you idea of God is), wouldn’t you want to do it with your full attention, totally focused on doing your very best in this moment, here and now?  This is mindfulness.  This is doing just one thing with your whole being.

This is the challenge then.  In a world gone mad with mental distractions and chaos, can you bring your attention home to the core of your being?  Can you return to your true nature of stillness, of mindfulness?  Can you do just one thing?

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