by Wayne Ren-Cheng
The modern world offers us a multitude of distractions whether we are at home or at work, distractions the Buddha couldn’t have conceived in his culture and era. Checking emails, texting, Samsung phones and iPads, Hulu and YouTube, checking the latest news on the Internet, eBay, Twitter, the phone ringing and just looking out the widow to check the weather. People must actually like distractions because so many of them look for distractions and engage them. Discovering a new television show that’s coming up on Netflix or seeing what Donald Trump is up to can be entertaining and disturbing. In the midst of the seemingly overwhelming distractions you can engage the intent of Appropriate Concentration and create and maintain an engaged, responsive and productive state of being. Develop a skillful way to concentrate or focus on whatever task needs to be done.
Being distracted, along with multitasking, creates the opposite state of being from focused, from concentration. Focus is safer . . . think of driving a car. It is more effective . . . think of what you haven’t gotten done yet. Focus is satisfying . . . think of how you felt the last time you fully completed a task.
Distractions come to us in two major ways. Multiple tasks are calling out to us to grab our attention and time. In the midst of those tasks is the real need for the bodymind to have moments of relaxation and reinvigoration. You can skillfully re-describe distractions giving them value in the pursuit of tasks, more on this later.
The modern world is not only full of distractions but it is equally as full of things that must be done. Chores, work assignments, scheduled activities for the kids, appointments of all kinds and the dreaded “this needs to done right now . . . not later . . . now” situations. With so much that needs to be done, and the distractions in our contemporary society it is no wonder that the glories of multitasking are touted as an antidote to anxiety and confusion.
Multitasking has long been touted as a positive aspect of the American work ethic. The concept of multitasking is a misnomer and a major distraction to pursuing deep practice. In Less: Accomplishing More by Doing Less, Marc Lesser writes, “There are two primary types of distractions: those that draw us in multiple directions at once, resulting in confusion and an inability to complete a thought or action, and those that provide mental relaxation, offering small “breaks” that support intense focus and effort. Clearly we want less of the former and more of the latter.”
You’re right to ask here, what is deep practice? In talking about Appropriate Speech I bring up an ideal attributed to Thich Naht Hanh know as Deep Listening, the actof sincerely giving over your whole attention to what is being said. Doing so allows you to hear what is really being said, as opposed to what you might want to hear, or think you hear. Deep practice has the same foundational ideal. You sincerely give over total concentration to the task at hand so you get done what needs doing in an effective and timely manner. This doesn’t mean no breaks . . . we’ll get to that in a moment.
Multi-tasking is the negative distraction that the author is referring to in the quote above. Multi-tasking might make us feel more important and more valuable in our jobs and private lives but it is an anathema to deep practice. The human brain and body is good but it never truly does two things at once. It bounces back and forth between actions/thoughts making excellence in any task nearly impossible to achieve. We might be 100% focused on multi-tasking but we won’t be 100% focused on either task.
Mr. Lesser offers that a small break, five minutes of mindfulness, standing and stretching, or just taking three deep cleansing breaths can help to maintain intense focus rather than diminish it. There is to be experienced in Mr. Lesser’s concept. For example, during meditation retreats when periods of up to three hours are spent in silent meditation breaks are taken within each hour for meditators to rise and perform a short session of Qigong or just stretch their muscles and breath deeply before continuing to sit. What works on the cushion works as well off.
Multiple tasks and distractions can be detrimental to whatever you need to accomplish. What if you turned multiple tasks into distractions that would work for you in two ways . . . you take a break from a concentrated task and get something done on another task? You’d remain in an engaged, responsive and productive state of being more of the day, and get multiple tasks accomplished.
Whenever I have a time-consuming, brain-busting, thought and action heavy period of writing or studying to do I make sure there is also a necessary chore needing to be done, and that is what I use for a distraction. Not a distraction for fun . . . a productive distraction. I skillfully re-describe what would be multitasking to deeply practicing one task and engaging another task as a distraction. I’ve been doing this for so long now that both tasks become distractions for the other and I get more done during the “work day” and have more time to relax when the “work day” is over.
For example, today I sit editing this very dharma talk. I know I’m going to do some refresher reading, a little Internet searching, time for contemplation, and lots of typing. Monday is also the day I do laundry, washing clothes, drying, hanging up, folding and putting away. So, when my eyes are tiring and my focus slipping from reading and searching and writing, I go put a load in, switch a load to dryer, hang up clothes on the line or folding and putting away clothes. Any one of those ‘distractions’ take five or ten minutes and then I am back to the computer and the books. Doing this I’ve come to look forward to doing laundry because it can be a welcome distraction and give my bodymind some downtime. Focusing intently on laundry for five minutes often allows me a new perspective when I get back to the major task.
I don’t engage in frivolous or meaningless activities during ‘breaks’. No email checking, no Twitter, no Hulu, or computer games. Whatever is the ‘distraction’ that day is a chore that must be done. It’ll be walking the dogs or giving them baths, weeding the herb or rose garden, washing the car, dishes, cleaning out the refrigerator . . . you get the point.
This isn’t really multitasking because total concentration is given to the ‘distraction’ for its time. I’m not thinking about the dharma talk while doing laundry . . . I’m doing laundry then. Distraction becomes a positive action rather than a hindrance to what needs to be done, because they become one and the same. You may be thinking that this sounds suspiciously like multitasking with a new name. I’d agree, except experience has taught me otherwise. There is 100% concentration on the process, or deep practice. The task and the distraction are immersed in totally during their time.
In order to maintain appropriate concentration on a task you must allow yourself a distraction. This is another of those seeming Buddhist paradoxes. Focus on the task, but for a some moments don’t focus on the task. The skillful means of doing this is to choose your “distractions” wisely. Rather than multi-task, accomplish multiple tasks each in their own moments.
“Wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.” William James