(published in Island Parent Magazine, September, 2007)
We live in a distracted world. Have you noticed? It is no wonder we crave the experience of a good book, a good movie, a soak in the tub, or a fast-paced tennis game. There are multiple distractions available to us at any moment. Everyone has their favourite, whether it's checking e-mail one more time, or looking up some obscure fact on the internet. The result is that we expect to be interrupted (even if it's ourselves who are doing the interrupting) and so our attention hovers on the surface of things. It rarely sinks and rests in one place.
Our culture doesn't support doing one thing at a time, finishing it, appreciating the feeling of satisfaction at a task well done, and then reflecting on what was learned and what comes next. Most job descriptions ask applicants to be proficient at multi-tasking, at managing and keeping track of several projects at once. Yet research shows that productivity goes down when we multi-task. The strain of jumping from one thing to another (always in a more or less superficial way) is wearing. What happens is that our consciousness, fractured in several directions, rarely gets to experience the extremely restful and restorative state of wholeness.
My theory, which is by no means original, is that we can re-store the scattered mind by engaging the attention in a whole-hearted way, even for short moments. Hatha yoga and meditation both offer this kind of experience, and both can have a tremendous effect on our daily lives, bringing clarity and calm to our work and our relationships. However, we shouldn't have to wait for the unique circumstances offered by a yoga or meditation session to practice whole-hearted attentiveness. We can do it almost anywhere, any time. It's called mindfulness in daily life.
Recently, I had the opportunity to present some reflections on this topic to educators and parents at the Making Tomorrow Conference held at the University of Victoria. In preparing for the workshop sessions, I came up with two words to sum up the goal of mindfulness – returning, and recognizing. (A third "r" word to add would be reflecting.) Returning to the present moment means abandoning the story-lines and plans that have taken us into the future or the past. Recognizing means consciously taking note of what is happening right now, both on the sensory level of experience and in one's inner world of emotions and mental states. This may sound time-consuming and elaborate, but it doesn't have to be. The breath and the body are always with us. Returning to the moment can be as simple as re-establishing awareness of the physical posture of the body, and noticing one complete in-breath and out-breath. It can include noticing some inner agitation and realizing that the situation before you is one in which you need to speak your truth. Mindfulness doesn't mean abandoning all conceptual thinking. It means staying connected to present-moment reality.
Practicing mindfulness not only allows the mind to rest, it leads to the development of other qualities of mind, such as interest, and equanimity. The scattered mind, when directed to the present moment, learns how to relax and accept what's happening. One moment of mindfulness following another leads to the development of concentration. Attention deficit becomes attention development.
We can give children opportunities to return to the present moment by having "mindfulness breaks" throughout the day, by journal-writing about present-moment experience, by offering activities that fully engage the attention like active listening to sounds, music, or a story, or by involving them in movement games that require real
attentiveness to the body.
Returning the attention to the present moment is the goal of these kinds of experience. Returning involves interrupting the distracted mind and recognizing what's happening. How does it feel to be me at this moment? What is happening in my inner world? What is going on around me? What can I see, hear, smell, taste, and feel? By giving children the tools (that is, the language) as well as frequent opportunities to recognize their unique experience, we can help them develop their ability to pay attention. Here are a few ideas:
1) Take a mindfulness break with your child. Ring a bell and practice listening to the sound of the bell until it fades away. How many seconds does it take until the sound is completely gone? Repeat together a simple verse, such as Thich Nhat Hanh's: "Listening to the sound of the bell, I come back to my true self/Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is the only moment." Or simply, "Present moment, only moment."
2) Brainstorm lists of words to describe the variations of hunger, tiredness, thirst, cold, and heat we feel in a body. Talk about the body and how it sends us signals that say, "Take care of me!" What happens when we ignore those signals?
3) Gather words and metaphors from poets and writers to describe emotions and mental states, like sadness and loneliness, joy and delight. Encourage children to know themselves. Suggest they keep a journal, which is for them alone to read.
4) Do a check-in on a daily basis, using questions that ask children to connect with their present-moment experience. How do you feel right now? Do you remember how you felt this morning when you woke up? Or, instead of focusing on feelings, ask children to tell you what they notice in their physical environment. What sounds do you hear right now? What smells do you smell?
5) Write poetry, or compose songs that celebrate the senses.
6) Notice other people paying attention (wind-surfers, para-gliders, skate-boarders, hockey players, golfers, musicians, dancers, actors – anyone who takes seriously the business of staying alert and attentive to his or her life).
7) At the end of the day, take some time to reflect on what it was like to be fully present, really there with something you were doing. How did it feel? What was it like to finish that activity and move on to something else? Was there a natural transition time? A breathing space?
Living in a human body includes the need for sleep, and sleep acts as a natural separation between two days of doing and being. Each day we get up and begin our familiar routines. In the morning, why not set an intention to practice whole-hearted attentiveness in one aspect of your day – in your conversations with a child, partner, or colleague, or in one repetitive task such as preparing a meal, doing the dishes, or tidying up?
By returning to the moment, recognizing what's happening, and consciously synchronizing our awareness with the immediately perceptible sensations of the activity before us, we can make a real difference to the quality of attention we are developing in our lives. Eckhardt Tolle, in his book The Power of Now, talks about how developing consciousness during the ordinary circumstances of daily life is what allows consciousness to be present when challenging circumstances arise. Isn't that what we all want for our children – to have the tools at hand when a difficult situation presents itself?
The distracted, distracting world is all around us. It's up to us to find those moments of attentiveness (while waiting for a bus, climbing steps, opening a door, reaching for a book) in which to sink into the moment and rest, however briefly, in the spaciousness of time. By sharing these kinds of moments with children, and by helping them experience them by themselves, we can each do our part to create a saner, less scattered world.