A monk known for his wisdom decided to build a temple. As work proceeded, he became a different person. He worried so much and walked restlessly around the site several times a day. He lost his calmness, peace, wisdom. Seeing his agitated state, his friend remarked gently, “I miss the person I knew. He is not with me anymore, but everywhere that he need not be. Come back, my friend.”
Distractions drag you down. Is your mind everywhere that it need not be, and is lured by so many distractions that you are restless, tired, unable to concentrate on anything? And if you’ve found yourself flipping pages of a book, your eyes looking at the sentences but not taking in a word, you would understand what the monk went through. He simply could not grasp what he ‘read’ in the scriptures — everything was suddenly incomprehensible. Truly, a de-focused mind fuels needless torment and all that is subtle and meaningful is lost, washed away in the torrent of external meaningless details.
Each external interruption increases self-interruption by eight per cent, and where the healthy adult’s attention span was 40 minutes, it has now dwindled to 10 minutes.
Interruption science. Interestingly, a new field called ‘interruption science’ addresses this issue. Researchers say that once the focus is broken, it takes 25 minutes to return to the original task. Attention is such a delicate state with all the senses finely balancing like well-trained gymnasts, that unless you are a sage in samadhi, a telephone ringing can sound rude and intrusive. And after you’ve dealt with the call, your mind is in a ‘where-was-I’ limbo. Sometimes you just can’t pick up the thread because it makes no sense — the link that made the picture whole in your understanding is lost. Or you can pluck it gingerly but without the smooth seamlessness it had earlier.
Is it really multitasking? My theory is that with the human penchant for hype, what we’ve grandly titled as ‘multitasking’ is nothing but self-
interruptions. It enables us to bask in the glow of quantity even as we quietly relegate quality to the shade. Ultimately, we are the losers. The brain which can only focus on one thing at a time is forced to switch channels rapidly leaping from one subject to another with a speed and agility it is not geared for. Thus, its perception and perspective plummet as reality gets chopped into several fragments so daunting that fear looms as we find ourselves increasingly unable to cope. Depression is just one shallow breath away.
Give your full attention to whoever you are with or whatever you do. And don’t let irrelevant stuff be the motor that runs your life.
Yet, ‘self-interruptions’ can seem pretty harmless and innocuous in themselves. You may find this everyday scenario a no-big-deal one: ‘you’re working on a complex project and you remember you haven’t eaten. Feeling famished, you wander towards the pantry to pick up a sandwich, and remember you haven’t texted your friend the time you’d be dropping in that evening. As you text, other messages pop up. You read, text back. Midstream, you get a few calls and answer them as you absentmindedly chew your sandwich. Meanwhile, you check out your e-mails lest something important has come up. Eventually, you get back to your complex project and gaze at it unseeingly. It takes a while to comprehend where you’d left off… did you eat the sandwich or not… must have the bank statement printed out… fill petrol in the car….
Familiar? Researchers reckon that each external interruption increases self-interruption by eight percent. And that where the healthy adult’s attention span was 40 minutes, it has now dwindled to 10 minutes. I sincerely hope not. But Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass has a point when he dubs multitaskers as being “suckers for irrelevancy.”
Focusing and health. But rather than marching around with a Tee-shirt that proclaims I am a sucker for irrelevancy and proud of it! I suggest discovering the magic in having a simple, self-uninterrupted life and being in a smooth flow that feels eternal and entrancing. Focusing is like seeing and listening with your attention. When you sit with the intention of focusing on a task, your brain draws in information and starts processing it — sifting, distilling, until a point feels right and serves as an inspiration for The Right Idea. It’s as if a picture in your head gets clearer, more vivid and the brain achieves a sweet concentration. External factors don’t daunt or irk anymore. In those moments, everything in you, every hormone, organ, muscle, cell is balanced and whole. What you are experiencing is the splendour of health at its best, the utter completeness of wholeness. Incidentally, focusing also enables you to pick up patience and perseverance as additional perks. The point is not to let irrelevant stuff be the motor that runs your life.
In that spirit, I suggest a Don’t-have-to-do list. Ask yourself “Do I really need to do this? Does this activity/appointment serve any purpose?” As you drop the unnecessary, your personal space, time and peace expand.
Make focusing a habit. Give your full attention to whoever you are with or whatever you do. When with your spouse, child, friend, don’t spare a thought for things unfinished or the mobile. Likewise, don’t give up easily on solving a crossword or puzzle — work at it until you get the right solution.
Practise the art of calm abiding in solitude. Every morning, purify and polish the power of your attention by reading with complete absorption something uplifting. Write down a line or passage that inspires you. Make time to listen to music that makes you want to sing. Sing with gratitude. Drink water enjoying every sip, relish every morsel you eat. Exercise wholeheartedly. Laugh in the fullness of delight and let your spirit breathe.
Ultimately, the great thing about being fully attentive is that it helps you lead the mind to higher dimensions instead of the mind leading you and dragging you down. And, as I’ve experienced, when you pay attention to it, life becomes luminous — an art, a benediction, a grace… .
(The writers are authors of the book Fitness for Life and teachers of the Fitness for Life programme.)