Evanston RoundTable, Oct. 4, 2018
Things go better when we’re attuned to the task at hand. A disciplined focus allows us to avoid the mindless and usually fruitless and frustrating ruminations that seem to hijack our thoughts when we lose our concentration.
And yet something seemingly so simple—staying engaged and on task—is one of the hardest things to do. The mind is a busy place, especially in the age of social media, multitasking and endless cell phone interruptions. Digital distractions claim an ever-larger chunk of our time and efforts.
To see how hard, try this experiment. When out for your next walk or bike ride, focus just on what you can see and hear around you: the sights, the sounds, the colors, even the smells. Should be easy, right? “Wow, look at that rhododendron! Love the colors on those roses! Check out the weird siding on that new house!” See if you can hold that focused attention for just 60 seconds. For most folks (certainly for me) it’s almost impossible.
Call it the “wandering mind,” and while fuzzy, distracted thinking seems innocent enough, and even sometimes pleasant to navel gaze that way, it’s not useful for most activities and altogether dangerous for the ones, like driving or bicycling, that require our complete attention.
So how do we best focus? One way is through “active” attention, that is, mindful concentration. Think of bending your attention laser-like to your work the way kids do playing video games. Have you ever noticed a dog waiting for a scrap of food from the table during a meal? Now that is focused concentration!
Meditation techniques are also useful. Be determined to stay focused, but if your mind wanders, just shrug it off and return to the task. If the errant thought is important, write it down and attend to it later. Practicing this approach can help improve your “mind stillness.”
You can practice this method at meal time. Try focusing on the food you’re eating—the smell, the taste, the mouth feel, the chewing and swallowing—for longer and longer periods, starting with a single bite and aiming for an entire meal.
Another useful metaphor for attentiveness is music. Imagine how a flutist has to tune into her part as she plays. Her major senses—seeing or visualizing the notes, listening for intonation, feeling the flute between her hands and fingers—are highly engaged.
I once saw Midori perform the Sibelius violin concerto with the Chicago Symphony at Orchestra Hall. Near the end of the last movement there was a commotion in the seats just beneath the stage. Symphony staff had to help escort someone out of the hall. During all that time Midori never looked down and never lost her focus on the performance, which was spectacular!
Not everyone gets a standing ovation for paying attention, like she did. But the results can be just as satisfying.