My friend Robert Reed has a new blog, "The Random Button," and I think you'd like it. In his latest post, he talks about "Paying Attention Deficit Disorder," joining the chorus of convincing voices and numerous researchers who all say the same thing-- STOP IT with the multi-tasking! His post was apparently initially inspired by a brush with death, at the hands (or fingers) of a texting-while-driving moron. It's a great rant, fun reading, and it will make you think. . .
Robert made me think a bit more deeply about The Problem: that people just don't seem to pay attention to what they are doing anymore. Stopping the elective multi-tasking is a step in the right direction. At a deeper level, however, is the truth that our nervous systems are ALREADY multi-tasking to an astonishing degree of complexity. As I went for a morning walk today, I was aware of the humidity and temperature, the comfort of my shoes, and the slant of the sidewalk, to which I adapted, mountain-goat-like, in gracefulness. I was also aware of traffic, of curbs, paving slabs thrusting away from their neighbors, and a light pole installed right in the middle of the sidewalk! I also became aware that my creaky knees, stiff ankles, and sore feet got more comfortable as I paid attention and tried to make my walking easy and pleasurable. That's a lot going on, and most of it might have stayed "below the radar" if I hadn't taken the time to write here about it. Clearly, there's an evolutionary advantage in being able to attend to multiple stimuli from the environment and adapt to it that enhances the probability that I will survive my walk.
Fortunately, we can do lots of things without having to consciously control them. Think about blinking, or swallowing, or even the mechanics of walking or standing. Chances are, you just do these things automatically--unless there's a problem. We rely on the primitive brain for our speedy reactions, like slamming on the brakes to avoid hitting Robert as he mindfully bicycles in our neighborhood. Conscious control of every movement would vastly increase the amount of time between realization and response. Quick, automatic reactions to danger are the result of our nervous system's ability to multi-task and prioritize what is most likely to increase survivability.
Our devices and distractions: the cell phone, the iPod, the Blackberry; the mascara, the breakfast tacos (one of my personal guilty multi-tasking confessions); put a barrier between us and our environment. Put another way, technological "connectivity" with others can actually disconnect us from our selves and our own senses. The people who are driving like maniacs with the phone stuck on their ear are not self-absorbed, they are OTHER absorbed. They have disconnected from their own capacities to move, think, sense, and feel. They are not in the present moment.
I also thought of a young friend of mine, Jennifer Moore, a soprano who has had a contract with the Zurich Opera this year. She once said to me, "I can't relate to Attention Deficit Disorder. I think I have Attention SURPLUS Disorder!" Jennifer knows how to be in the present moment, experiencing whatever she is doing to the fullest. She becomes totally absorbed in whatever she is studying, exploring, or experiencing in each moment. The moments can turn into hours or even days when she is "on a roll," and she must wonder where the time went. She often finds it difficult to pull herself away from whatever has her so absorbed, when she is so focused and "in the zone." Her ability to be present also makes her a compelling and thrilling performer, well on her way to a successful operatic career.
The fantastic thing is that we can direct our attention and shift our focus with changing conditions. Narrow focus, intensity, and absorption alternates with a broader focus, sensitivity to external conditions, and an ability to react appropriately. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, "If you don't know what you're doing, you can't do what you want." That's the best sales-pitch for awareness and presence that I know of!
There are lots of opportunities to practice being present. Time spent in nature, with a beloved animal, with a lover. . . meditation, painting, writing. It doesn't much matter WHAT you do, just pay attention to what you are doing. I'm still growing in my ability to detach from the demands to multi-task compulsively. The Feldenkrais Method has been my tool for learning more about being present. And you know what they say: You must be present to win.