I just read a news story about an 18-year-old woman whose car went out of control and hit a dump truck. The woman and her 10-month-old son were killed. On her phone was a half-finished text message.
Now, not all multitasking is as catastrophic as that. We do it all the time, don’t we?
But why do we do it? Sometimes we say it’ll make us more efficient, but if you’re trying to type a report and keep interrupting yourself to send text messages and check Facebook, you’re not exactly being very efficient. It seems to me that what’s really going on is that we’re being anxious, and trying to find a distraction from our anxiety by looking outside of ourselves.
We’re not taking an interest in ourselves, so we hope someone out there is taking an interest in us. Maybe someone’s sent a text message, or has phoned us, or has replied to an email. Maybe we can say something funny or even annoying on Facebook, and get a response. As soon as we’ve finished checking one source of stimulus, we move on to another.
So we keep cycling through all these different things — anything to take us away from the rather boring experience of just being ourselves.
And none of this actually helps with anxiety. In fact it makes it worse.
Research by psychiatrists Edward Hallowell and John Ratey of Harvard University says that all this multitasking and overstimulation can lead to what they call Pseudo-Attention Deficit Disorder, where we’re constantly seeking out new information, but when we find it were not able to concentrate on it. So we keep surfing the web, for example, looking for really interesting stuff, but when we find it our minds just can’t get engaged, and then we’re off looking for the next thing.
So what does help? We can learn to be happy with our own experience. That’s what helps.
Meditation is a way of learning to be comfortable with ourselves. Its a way of learning to really value our experience.
And one important thing about meditating is that it’s a form of “uni-tasking.” We’re more and more just doing one thing. It’s a bit like defragging your computer’s hard drive so that it runs more efficiently.
This is one reason that we feel refreshed and calm after meditation. We have calmed the mind by just focusing on one thing, and by letting go of some of the crazy pointless maddening thinking that we do.
It’s good, at least sometimes, to take that into our daily lives as well.
So here is a practice for you — one that you can take into your daily life. It’s just one example.
Next time you’re brushing your teeth, for example, just brush your teeth. Don’t check your cell phone. Don’t read something. Don’t wander around. Just brush your teeth. Pay attention to the movements in your arm. Notice the feeling of the bristles on your teeth and gums. Notice the taste of the toothpaste. Notice your breathing. Notice thoughts arising, and let go of them. Notice how you feel. Notice if you feel bored or restless, and just allow yourself to feel that way. Don’t feel you have to run away from boredom. Be patient with whatever you find. Relax. And just brush your teeth.
You can do this with many things. Not just brushing your teeth, but walking, driving, taking a shower, cleaning the house, preparing food, eating.
Paying attention to your experience in this way will bring a little calmness into your mind, and even a little calmness can go a long way. It might even save your life.