Once upon a time I prided myself on the ability to multitask. Other people, observing the “skill,” admired me for it. As if it was good to be able to do two things simultaneously.
I once heard a brain scientist vividly describe the chemistry of what occurs inside the head during an attempt to multitask. How in fact what’s happening, with lightning speed, is a going back-and-forth, back-and-forth, between focus on the two things. He explained how doing so is in fact taxing to the brain — tiring to the very person who imagines that it “has” to be this way, with “so much to get done.” His portrayal brought to vivid life the way in which trying to do two things at once means neither is done as well as it might have been, had we granted ourselves permission to do one at a time. Hence — ironically — time might actually be saved: for to do a thing once, with full attention, likely means it won’t have to be redone later.
Consider the expression “pay attention.” Attention is a precious commodity.
In my own inner observations, I came to realize that even attempting to think while engaging in a physical task constitutes multitasking. In that case, we are attempting to bring attention, simultaneously, to what’s inside the head and to what the body is doing. The poor scrambling brain, all the while, is furiously attempting to focus in two directions at once. The result — surely you have observed this — is that after you go out to do errands, it dawns on you that you’re not certain you turned off the stove as you’d intended to. Why does this happen? It’s because you — because we, for I noticed myself in this same wasteful process — simply cannot attend two things at once. One of them, or more likely both, ends up being less well done for lack of sufficient attention.
* * *
By the time of this writing, it’s been years since all of this became clear in my awareness. I long since learned that if I try to think while turning off the stove, I will have to go back later to be certain it’s turned off. Or I will need to revisit whatever thought I’d been having while my hand was turning the knob. Nowadays, on the unusual occasions when I try to do two things at once, I stop myself and say: Which matters more in this moment? Shall I think first and then do the task, or is it better to hold still and contemplate, and then do the physical thing?
When thinking occurs consciously — that is, when it happens deliberately, not (as it long was) unconsciously, often saturated in emotion — then it’s entirely possible to choose to set it aside for the duration of an action requiring full attention. If a thing is worth doing, whether it’s mental or physical, it merits the fullness of conscious awareness.
* * *
Spending so much time in the woods has provided me unending opportunities for learning. This includes discovering how attempting to think while moving is unwise, sometimes even dangerous. How many times have I tripped over a fallen twig, because of focusing on the exciting new thing that just now dawned on me, to the detriment of tuning into my ever-aging feet. Walking briskly through trees full of enthralling creatures, most of whom are heard more than seen, is a real set-up for losing my footing. It is crucial for my well-being that my ears and eyes be attuned to the possible proximity (for instance) of a protective mother bear during the time of young cubs. Much of what my senses drink in is not of the nature of safety, but of pure delight: the glorious song of the veery in the treetops to my left; the magnificent sight of the soaring pileated woodpecker with its gaudy red head. But to fully take in these moments among the beloved trees, I must hold still. Not just so I don’t stumble, but so as not to divide attention in a way that sacrifices one scrap of the moment’s savoring.
It’s like the thing my musician brother once said to me: if you “listen” to music as a kind of background to daily activities, you aren’t really — fully — listening. How right he was. Nowadays if I’ve got music playing, it’s front and center in awareness. The moment I notice myself pulled to do something else, I turn it off. Music I love is worth every drop of attention.
Once a person (awake or otherwise) realizes — in a bodied way, not in the head — that there is latitude over where attention is put in a given moment of consciousness, much becomes possible. We can be deliberate about where attention is placed. Once or perhaps twice a day, I consciously “attend” matters to do with the larger world. This includes the sorts of concerns showing up on the news: the current situation with the Covid pandemic, ongoing wars (like the one in Ukraine), the state of American democracy, of the climate crisis. There is much to do with the random slaughter of children, of people of color.
These things matter to me, as they do to most of us. But I do not “live” there all day, even as I am well aware the phenomena are ongoing. I know how much tuning-in to these realities is enough and how much is unnecessary, in order for me to stay sufficiently aware of what goes on around me, all around the world. Much about our planet is a mess. It is heartbreaking. Yet it is not difficult to be deliberate in the matter of how much attention to bring to a given concern. As a result, although my heart will surely break in the presence of the many nightmare conditions in our world, I do not linger there unnecessarily.
* * *
During the time my son was actively using heroin, aware as I was that he could die at any moment, I nevertheless did not dwell, hour after hour, in awareness of the tentative state of his aliveness. I simply loved him with my wide-open heart. In no way did I wall off my love, in the name of “protection.” I was well aware how his dying, should it occur, would crush me. No contradiction between the two.
Nor does the awareness of the severity of such things interfere with the deep peace that carries me along. This does not constitute denial. Such things would have been hard for me to understand, prior to awakening, when any painful or challenging reality tended to take fierce hold of me and keep me in its grip. Something said, “If it’s real in an ongoing way, then I must be tuned into it in an ongoing way.” That is, obsessed.
No wonder I suffered. No wonder we human beings suffer.
Please consider this possibility for yourself. It is not necessary to awaken in order for you to learn about the latitude regarding your attention, in any moment you become self-aware. Do note: attention is not the same as thinking-about. It’s got to do, simply, with where you put your inner eyes. Where your momentary focus is.
Consider the expression pay attention: it’s right there, in the way we say that. Attention is a commodity, and it is a most precious one. More precious by far than the money sort of commodity.
[From a forthcoming book by Jan Frazier]