March 28, 2007

Mindfulness & Multitasking

In the buddhadharma, mindfulness is everywhere. Even in witty books like The Dharma of Star Wars Mathew Bortolin tells us “Mindfulness is the energy that shines light on all we see and all we do. It is awareness of what is happening right now. Mindfulness supports concentration – the art of precisely and deeply focusing one’s attention on an object or task at hand – and together the two bring us into direct contact with reality, where insight and understanding are born.”

“It is difficult to be mindful because many of us have lived unmindfully for years and even decades. Yoda’s words about Luke in The Empire Strikes Back can easily be applied to us: ‘Never his mind on where he was. What he was doing.’ Likewise, our minds are rarely in touch with where we are and with what we re doing. And in this way we have accumulated many years of living without mindfulness – doing one thing mechanically while thinking about another – and this habit of living distractedly has become ingrained in us.”

A tai chi master once began our class with admonitions against doing two things at once. When you listen to music and wash the dishes you are not really listening to music or washing the dishes, he told us. Personally, that sound good to me since I hate washing the dishes if I can do it without really having to do it I find no great loss there. All that aside, I remember at the time feeling a great deal of skepticism and a healthy dose of sexism.

I am a modern woman and in the modern world multitasking has gained a kind of mythical status, (I even have it listed as a skill on my resume) and it is consistently associated more with women than men. Claudia Wallis writes in Time Magazine “Human beings have always had a capacity to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era--picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler.” This evolution can account for the higher ability of women to multitask. No matter what she was doing, she always had to keep one eye on the kid, and those kids were more likely to not accidentally kill themselves. Whereas guys had to concentrate totally on stalking the wildebeest lest it turn and gut them.

I notice also that the majority of the dharma is authored by men. I wonder if their inability to effectively multitask leads them to their negative conclusions. Yet I cannot argue with the wisdom of mindfulness. Now, when I Google “multitasking” the first several articles which come up treat it as a negative rather than a positive. I wonder if this is just a research trend – humans have a long standing tradition of challenging their predecessors, being against something just because someone before them was for it – or, now that the studies of multitasking are no longer in their infancy, they are finally beginning to uncover the truth of it.

“Although many aspects of the networked life remain scientifically uncharted, there's substantial literature on how the brain handles multitasking. And basically, it doesn't. It may seem that a teenage girl is writing an instant message, burning a CD and telling her mother that she's doing homework--all at the same time--but what's really going on is a rapid toggling among tasks rather than simultaneous processing. ‘You're doing more than one thing, but you're ordering them and deciding which one to do at any one time,’ explains neuroscientist Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS).

“Then why can we so easily walk down the street while engrossed in a deep conversation? Why can we chop onions while watching Jeopardy? ‘We, along with quite a few others, have been focused on exactly this question,’ says Hal Pashler, psychology professor at the University of California at San Diego. It turns out that very automatic actions or what researchers call ‘highly practiced skills,’ like walking or chopping an onion, can be easily done while thinking about other things, although the decision to add an extra onion to a recipe or change the direction in which you're walking is another matter. ‘It seems that action planning--figuring out what I want to say in response to a person's question or which way I want to steer the car--is usually, perhaps invariably, performed sequentially’ or one task at a time, says Pashler. On the other hand, producing the actions you've decided on--moving your hand on the steering wheel, speaking the words you've formulated--can be performed ‘in parallel with planning some other action.’ Similarly, many aspects of perception--looking, listening, touching--can be performed in parallel with action planning and with movement.” – Willis

See,9171,1174696-1,00.html for the entire article.

I can’t deny that even as I type this entry I am half engrossed in a conversation with four of my studio mates about recent movies, our classes, and why incoming freshmen are so dumb. Three of us four have laptops open and the fourth fiddles with the pens and papers on the desktop where she sits. I don’t feel terribly diminished or distracted as a result. But am I mindful? Probably not.

Is there a balance to this? A middle way which can be achieved? Or is true mindfulness the only response? Can single pointed concentration combined with a lack of attachment (therefore reducing the adjustment period in a constantly shifting world) allow us to effectively multitask by switching our concentration with no lag time while giving our full attention to each task as it comes to us?

Can one multitask mindfully?

March 25, 2007

The Great Eastern Sun


Those are my boots and they are standing on the path. The footprint beside mine is from someone (probably me earlier in the week) who stepped off the path and sunk into two feet of snow. At Shambhala Mountain Center the paths get trod again and again all winter, packing down the snow hard enough for a large man to walk on top of without getting snow in his sandals, if he were so inclined. When new snow falls, it covers the path for a while and it has to be rediscovered the hard way. The people who know the paths best often travel them early enough in the morning for us vacationing layabouts to later follow in their footsteps and make it safely to breakfast. I think the metaphor is apt.

Follow the lead of those who have gone before to stay on the path and if you fall, pick yourself up again, dump the snow out of your boot, and keep going because there is hot chocolate in nirvana. (Well, okay, maybe not, but it sounds good to me, eh?)

March 23, 2007


I have been thinking lately of the past, of my Christianity, or lack thereof. I have been thinking of God and wondering to myself ‘Am I missing something here?’ Am I diminished in some way by my complete atheism? Is that the piece of the puzzle that fell on the floor and was eaten by the dog?

My mother’s family is United Methodist, a respectable, quiet, and fairly liberal branch of Protestantism. My father’s family is Presbyterian, which is practically the same thing so no one made a fuss when my parents chose to attend the Methodist church and bring up their children in that church. My mother and grandparents have always been very active members, lay leaders, Sunday school teachers, and choir members.

I always hated Sunday school, but then I just hated school in general. I hated getting up to go to early service (all of 8:30 a.m.), but then I just hated getting up in the morning. I didn’t mind church. I didn’t mind afterward, being part of the community, in the fellowship hall with donuts and hot chocolate, chasing the other kids up and down the halls, being in the nativity play. I even won an award for being the youngest member to ever remember and recite all the books of the Bible. They put me in the same confirmation class as my older brother, because heaven forbid he do anything I couldn’t do. I remember saying my confirmation vows in front of the entire church when I was thirteen.

I also remember from a much younger age crying myself to sleep at night. They told us in Sunday school all you had to do was love Jesus and ask him to come into your heart and you would feel his love and everything would be alright. I remember going home and laying in my bed and saying my night time prayers and asking Jesus to come into my heart and feeling…..nothing. I cried, oh how I cried, and begged and prayed and felt no different from the moment before. I was young, six or seven, and I forgot about it and got on with the business of being a good little Christian. I would make myself worthy of Jesus, worthy of God.

We moved to a new town and a new church, still United Methodist, shortly after my confirmation. I started saving half of my weekly allowance for the tithing tray, praying every day, going to Sunday school and helping with the younger kids. The more I tried, the less Christian I became. I listened to the sermons and tried to make sense of them, but I just heard the same stories I’d heard a million times before. Moses and the Pharaoh, Noah and the Ark.

I started growing up and reading books which made me think. I started asking questions. Why did God drown the entire world? Why not just the evil people? Better still, why didn’t he send down an angle to tell them to straighten up? Why kill everything, the children, the trees, the animals (I always had a great love for animals) just to prove a point? That was the first set of questions I pondered while the preacher talked. It was in church, while the preacher talked, when I realized I didn’t believe in God. I was fourteen.

I didn’t tell anyone at first. That’s not something you just pop up and announce, but I was still a teenager, and as with most teenagers it didn’t take long to boil over. My brother knew first, then my Dad, then came the blowout, raised voices, slamming doors confrontation with my mother. In the end she realized she couldn’t make me go to church anymore, though she hoped I’d always come back around. I was fifteen.

At school it was the thing to talk about. “You’re an atheist?” “How can you be an atheist?” “So who do you think made the world?” I weathered that storm pretty well. Being challenged made me think. Being forced to explain it to someone else made me understand it better myself, but it didn’t change my mind.

Since becoming Buddhist I think I have found a greater understanding of my Christianity than I ever did in church. I wonder if the Methodist church had the kind of intense intellectual tradition that I’ve found in the Buddhist traditions, would I still be a Christian? Was it simply that I had grown beyond the parables and the stories and had nothing else to turn my mind to? I known now that there is greater depth to Christianity than I ever glimpsed in my childhood in the church. I also know there are other definitions for God. God the father, the creator, the maker. God the consciousness, the everything, you and me, all encompassing. God the energy, the life, the magic. I know the possibilities are endless and well explored by other spritual thinkers, travelling down paths as long and twisty as I could ever desire. I know so many believe.

I am still an atheist.

The Middle of Nothing

For the past two weeks I have done practically nothing. The first week of nothing was spring break; it was scheduled. The second week of nothing was tonsillitis; it was definitely unscheduled. And it was easy. That is what amazes me so. It was so easy to do nothing.

Sometimes I worry about misplaced ambition. I make myself so busy chasing some elusive future goal. When I reach that goal…what then? Will I be happy? Am I not happy now? And if I stop, if I just let it all go, went out and got a regular job, paid the bills, came home every night by five, what then? Will I be happy? Or will I just feel lost because I don’t have a goal?

*sigh* Okay, enough of that, sounds a little too much like angst for me and that’s not my thing.

Today I left my house for the first significant period of time in a week. I felt good, despite the lingering lump in my throat. The setting sun was warm. I am wearing sandals for the first time in months. The trees on campus are just starting to flower and the cute college guys are out jogging in their tennis shoes and itty bitty running shorts and nothing else.

How could two weeks go by so fast? One good (oh so good), one bad and nothing to show for either of them. It would be so easy to live that way. It would be what Chogyam Trungpa calls the “setting-sun world.” I am so happy I have the dharma, and the dharma is hard, simple, but hard. It makes me happy. And I have my goals, which are also hard but not always simple. That makes me happy too. And I have sunshine and flowers and cute college boys and that makes me happy too, though in an entirely different and much more neurotic way.

The Buddha told us to find the Middle Way. I see the two extremes clearly and I see that somehow I am managing to navigate between them both. Yay, me! I found it.

Now I just need to remember where I put it.

March 04, 2007

Truth and Anger

In his blog In Limine, Greenfrog quotes Ram Dass speaking of the instructions from his teacher Maharajji to always tell the truth and to let go of his anger.

“The trouble is, we can only tell the truth when we cease to identify with the part of ourselves we think we have to protect. ... I can never be straight with you if I need something from you. So in order to tell the truth to you, I have to give up whatever that need is inside myself. That's why satya is a practice of renunciation; what we're required to renounce are the attachments that keep us from speaking the truth.”

I thought I had given up my need to understand everything. I thought I had accepted confusion and bewilderment. I deal with them better now, but the truth is not acceptance, but rather apathy. I question less deeply because I am protecting myself. The questioning will lead to frustration, anger, suffering, a self-perpetuating cycle. I fear this.

Gehlek Rimpoche tells a story in his commentaries on Tsongkapa about the Buddha’s nephew. The young man lived a wild life and would not practice so the Buddha abducted him and took him to a heaven realm where he found six beautiful young women who were waiting there for him to be reincarnated. The nephew decided to renounce and become a monk so that he could earn enough karma to reach the heaven realm, but even after he became a monk, the other disciples shunned him. He did not understand, so he spoke to Ananda, the Buddha’s right hand man. Ananda took him to a hell realm when six hungry ghosts were stirring a pot, waiting for the nephew of the Buddha because they knew that he would spend a short time in the heaven realm then end up in the hell realm. The scared the poor nephew even more, but even that was not enough to ensure a pure renunciation or put him on the right path.

Neither desire for pleasure nor fear of suffering can bring about renunciation. When is acceptance apathy? When is anger fear? When is truth confusion? When is confusion acceptance? I would have failed Maharajji’s instructions.

I am angry that I can’t find the truth (even if it bit me on the ass, which it probably did).

March 02, 2007


I have been dealing with some anger lately. It has been brought out by some frustrations and feelings of unfairness. What brought it to my attention was the dream in which I was yelling at a cop for pulling me over, sexually harassing me, and then giving me a thousand dollar ticket. It was not the cop’s actions (not that I think cops act like that in reality) but my own response in the dream which made me aware of my waking emotional state. It was not the first such dream to involve yelling and crying, but it was vivid. And yesterday was a snow day so I had plenty of extra time to think about it.

Once I admitted I was angry, I started thinking about why I was angry, not the root of it, but the mundane causes and conditions. Once I acknowledged the mundane causes, they started to lose some of their force. Then I could look deeper into the root of it, which inevitably comes back to change and ignorance.

Things have been going well this semester. Perhaps you could say too well, but I don’t really believe that is accurate. I was becoming attached to having things go my way. Now they haven’t and it seems unfair and that has made me angry. Not the yelling, screaming, throwing-a-tantrum angry like in my dreams. Not even grumpy, snapping-at-people angry. It is just a slow, steady drag. Like a great fist reached up into my chest, wrapped around my insides, and is slowing, gratingly pulling everything down into the mud.

The one sticking point is that while I can deal with most of the conditions of this anger in a constructive way, there is one single thing that I feel helpless to change. That helplessness leads to frustration leads to anger, which infests all the other little annoying situations. It comes from a competency issue.

Sandi, my boss, hit it on the nose some time ago. I experience great personal pain when my competence is threatened, when I feel incompetent. I definitely feel incompetent in this, but I can’t really identify the source of it. I have been set a task by one of my professors which I should be able to do. Everything in my training and education should have prepared me for this long ago, and yet each time I attempt it I end up feeling more incompetent than the last. Each time I tell myself this time will be different, I’ll be patient, I’ll take my time, I’ll pay attention and do it right. That has never happened. And it is baffling, for it is completely against my character.

Ignorance and change may be the roots, but ignorance of how to effect change when it is wanted is the true core of my personal anger. My anger always has the edge of frustration to it.

Acceptance then is the antidote.