I Don’t Even Need A Horse To Fall (Or, Multi-Tasking Is Not Your Friend)

I got the idea for this post from the blog at Beliefnet and from falling while walking Rubydog. How did this happen? Simply put, I wasn’t paying attention. In comments on Live In the Present Moment we’ve been discussing quality of attention and how it affects riding and our lives, and I failed to practice what I preach.

As Rubydog and I rounded a corner on our way home from our morning walk/jog, I waved to the construction workers who are adding the new lanais on our complex, and put a foot wrong. I fell with a comically spectacular splat, removing skin and flesh from a large portion of my elderly knee. Ouch. Hilarity and gushing of blood ensued. Road rash in Hawaii has a particularly jagged quality because of the lava.

In truth, I was not paying attention. I was multi-tasking. I was thinking of my daughter, watching the rare two cars that were passing, and anticipating the greetings of the workers. Most folks would say this isn’t too much. That’s not multitasking! But it was. Look what happened.

Have you ever found yourself talking on the phone while walking down the street, while drinking a cup of coffee, making a mental shopping list, and getting your keys ready to open your front door?
What about talking on the phone while looking at your email, admiring a new car in a tv commercial?
Wouldn’t want to miss anything!
How about when we’re talking to a good friend and furtively glance at our Blackberry? Media guru Renny Gleeson says that what we’re really saying is, “you are not as important as literally almost anything that could come to me through this device.”
Ram Dass said it well, forty years ago: Be Here Now.
But we all try and multitask to some degree. Well, most of us. Here’s Thich Nhat Hanh on the topic:
“When I drink a glass of water, I invest one hundred percent of myself in drinking it. You should train yourself to live every moment of your daily life like that.”
I’m guessing Thay doesn’t have a Blackberry.
We often act as though multitasking is necessary, that to be successful in this frenetic world requires us to juggle hyperkinetically, never letting our attention rest on one thing for more than a fraction of a second. We’re given tips on how to do it better, and gadgets that make it easier. One of the biggest complaints people seem to have about the new iPad is its inability to multitask.

Driving, for sure, takes a lot of concentration. We all wish we could shout, “Get off the phone and drive!” now and again. In Hawaii, it’s illegal to use a cellphone in the driver’s seat. But the rest of the time, wouldn’t you think multitasking was OK?

Neuroscientist Gary Aston-Jones, Ph.D said in a recent CNN.com article, says there may be a cost associated with becoming an expert multitasker, saying it “may ‘lower the threshold of distractibility,’ possibly harming the ability to do tasks that require intense sustained focus, such as art, science, and writing.”

A new study suggests that people who often do multiple tasks in a variety of media — texting, instant messaging, online video watching, word processing, Web surfing, and more — do worse on tests in which they need to switch attention from one task to another than people who rarely multitask in this way.

Ashton-Jones has found that “heavy multitaskers are more easily distracted by irrelevant information than those who aren’t constantly in a multimedia frenzy.” because they tend to retain distracting information in short-term memory. This impedes their ability to focus on the current job at hand, compared to those who don’t multitask. Apparently, short term memory has a greater function in tasks requiring sustained focus than just keeping al the facts in the mix.

You’re being flooded with too much information and you can’t selectively filter out quickly which is important and which is not important. It only takes a fraction of a second for you to take your eyes off the road and miss the guy making a right-hand turn into your lane.

Here’s what I think is the most interesting part of the article:

Aston-Jones says that it’s unclear if some people are drawn to multitasking because that’s the way their brain works, or if multitasking itself causes changes in the brain. And it’s not clear if the brain changes caused by switching attention from YouTube to Google to Twitter and then back to your iPhone — if that is what is occurring — are easily reversed.

And in fact, we’re not really multitasking anyway, says neuroscientist Earl Millier:

People can’t multitask very well, and when people say they can, they’re deluding themselves. The brain is very good at deluding itself. Switching from task to task, you think you’re actually paying attention to everything around you at the same time. But you’re actually not. You’re not paying attention to one or two things simultaneously, but switching between them very rapidly.

Humans simply don’t focus very well on more than one thing at a time. All you have to do is take a look at my knee if you want proof.

What humans can do, Millier said, is shift our focus from one thing to the next with lightning speed. This is very different from the way the mind and perceptual system of horses work. As we switch from attentive task to task, we fool ourselves into thinking we are paying attention to everything around us at the same time. But it is really sequential. Horses, unlike humans, perceive the reality around them in a diffuse way, for which they are sometimes punished. I wrote about this in Do You Demand Your Horse’s Complete Attention? and then it was discussed with great alacrity at Glenshee Equestrian Center.

The problem with multitasking is so very simple. Changing our minds is not. If we choose too many objects to give our attention to, we cannot deepen our familiarity, our friendliness, with any of them. Our minds cannot immerse themselves in each object’s arena beyond superficiality. It’s like glancing instead of examining.

Here’s where mindfulness practice can come in handy. Rather than acting as mental dilettantes and leaping from one task to another, if we allow our minds to fully occupy one object at a time, we can assemble a coherent theme. There is great comfort in this, and for those who practice it, greater productivity, connection to their inner worlds as well as to those in the outside world.

Resting with open attention on any object (by object I mean thought, thing, process, etc.) activates the innate human intelligence that is bypassed in multitasking. Deeper comprehension and familiarity allow greater effectiveness and insight. I suspect I don’t have to tell you this after you have tried thirty times to jump the same combination successfully. If you tried it the first ten times while mentally complaining your grocery list and the next two times while predcting that your horse was going to veer to the left after the second jump, your failure was practically guaranteed. Once your focus was fully on the process, however, and you held in your mind the picture of success (much like the visualization process of sports psychology), banishing all ideas of what might go wrong, you did it! Success!

Some of us, while looking at a piece of carrot, can see the whole cosmos in it, can see the sunshine in it, can see the earth in it. It has come from the whole cosmos for our nourishment. You may like to smile to it before you put it in your mouth. When you chew it, you are aware that you are chewing a piece of carrot. Don’t put anything else into your mouth, like your projects, your worries, your fear, just put the carrot in. And when you chew, chew only the carrot, not your projects or your ideas. You are capable of living in the present moment, in the here and the now. It is simple, but you need some training to just enjoy the piece of carrot. This is a miracle.

–Thich Nhat Hanh

Chögyam Trungpa way back in 1976, reminded me that I should not walk and think at the same time:

Meditation is working with our speed, our restlessness, our constant busyness. Meditation provides space or ground in which restlessness might function, might have room to be restless, might relax by being restless. If we do not interfere with restlessness, then restlessness becomes part of the space. We do not control or attack the desire to catch our next tail.

I come back to it again and again, much as Bonnitta does when exploring the left, the right, in order to find the middle: “Oops, Thinking! Let go of that thought. Focus on now.”

As Buddhists say so often:

When walking, just walk.

When riding, just ride.

© 2010, hurric@nekim. All rights reserved.

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