Monday, June 14, 2010

Attention dilution disorder

It’s an interesting dilemma, seeing both the power and the risk inherent in today’s vast array of attention-drawing technologies.  Columnist Ruth Marcus recently diagnosed herself in my local paper, the Concord Monitor, as having a “bad case of the shallows,” in a June 9th column headlined as Cyberspace Dunderheads. She tells us that’s actually the title of Nicholas Carr’s new book on the impact of modern communication technologies on the brain. I still need to check out the book, but the concept is familiar. You know that habit you may have, as you work at your computer, that causes you to just skate over information, constantly clicking to the next link to scan, and then move on? Never really landing and immersing? Maybe even noticing this bleeding into time away from the screen, say when you arrive home, now away from your work screen. Maybe you spend a little time glancing at the mail, not really tending to it before this little chore or that amusement draws you here, and then there, and now over here... Does anyone else recognize themselves in this dilemma? I found myself right there with Marcus.

Fortunately, there’s another technology that’s been developed to counter this malady. It’s called mindfulness, or meditation, and it’s been in development for centuries. It’s nice to know it’s been around that long: at least we can feel a little less disadvantaged, realizing that the challenge of cultivating control over attention is not new to these times. With this age-old technology, we use the most sophisticated and flexible hardware/software gadget we have, the body/mind, and we work with its’ capabilities to develop awareness.

Are you willing to see your mind, the neural network that includes your brain and all the neurology that runs through every part of the body, as a technology? Meditators do see it this way, and they work with their own hardware/software gadget to develop their attentional capacity and skills. I am such a practitioner. We meditators go to all this trouble in order to live out the quality of life we choose for ourselves, rather than having external forces like Blackberries and Facebook unconsciously drive our experience. The basic premise of mindfulness is that attention can be trained, that we can train ourselves to take in the facts of the present moment and work with these facts skillfully. When we are able to attend to present moment experience in this way, we can benefit by a number of valuable effects of this practice. We are able to make better choices about how to use our time, we become better able to interact with ourselves and the world effectively and kindly, and we can learn how to take care of the things that need taking care of right way, rather than allowing them to accumulate into bigger problems later on.

How is it that just paying attention to present moment experience makes all of this possible? Look at the challenge mentioned by Ruth Marcus. She describes the way she is now using computer and communication technologies to do her job. She talks about “spending hours skittering across the virtual surface of the web,” which prevents her from focusing properly on any one presentation of information. She even points us to studies and to Carr’s book (which I have not read but certainly plan to), which explain how this type of interaction with technology is teaching our brains to feel this as normal.

From personal experience, I know exactly what she’s talking about. In the most recent corporate setting I worked in, most of the communication happened via e-mail, even though 95% of the conversations were taking place between people who work on the same floor. As an established meditator, what this experience showed me is how anxious-making this is. Trying to attend to multiple e-mail “conversations” to discern attitude, issues, level of severity, to glean what was important to me from the vast amount of chaff, this was subtly and sometimes not-so-subtly exhausting. Someone who practices present moment awareness is able to know the body tension, shortness of breath and the emotional discomfort that this kind of multi-tasking promotes, just as it’s happening. In fact, I’ve decided that multi-tasking is a harmful myth, at least for most people at today's work pace. You really can’t hold multiple tasks and conversations simultaneously in awareness. What you can do is give only a chopped up, partial, sub-standard version of your attentional capacity to each thing as you briefly turn to it. Does this sound like a way to work effectively? What I found in the situation I describe above was that is was tiring and ineffective, and having really seen this, I took some steps with my team to bring about better ways to share information and update each other.

I’d like to suggest that if you relate to this issue, you begin by turning your attention to this question: Is it valuable for me to cultivate attention so that I can place it fully where it is needed in any given moment, and thereby respond to each moment the best possible way? If you sense the answer is yes, I recommend that you move your attention now toward taking action to develop your own awareness in the direction you would like to see it go, rather than allowing today’s external technology to do that for you. Happy meditating!

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Look, Ma, I can do this with one arm tied behind my back!

Have you ever heard of frozen shoulder? This is not some new, chic cut of beef at your local chophouse, folks. I currently have roughly 30% of normal range of motion in my left shoulder. And as a once-per-week yoga teacher (meaning, not professional, but still very much engaged with teaching and practicing) this can really get in the way. Forget demonstrating a pose with arms out to the sides, what about even the business of working to find a comfortable position to sleep, or strongly regretting reaching up mindlessly to attempt to put a pony tail in my hair. Ouch!

Okay, so this is not all that tough, honestly. I've been through childbirth, breast cancer and reconstructive surgery, not to mention some long drawn-out periods of outrage and remorse before. Like every other human on this planet, I have some experience with difficulty. With this, the worst I can say is that it's a constant vigilance to remember that I'm not at 100% on that side, or else dealing with the immediate reminder of pain that comes when I twist through a doorway a little too quickly, say. And in the long run, I feel I'm at peace with the fact that there's likely to be some pain and loss of function sometime between now and when I finally shuffle off this planet. I can even say that as one of the long list of side benefits of a meditation practice, I have become something of a connoisseur of discomfort. It's the only way to really look at and gain insight into this aspect of life, the suffering part, you know? What is this sensation? Burning, throbbing, pressure, tingling, etc.? Is it static or changeable? Unpleasant or simply intense?

What inquiry really comes down to is, what attitude arises relative to the discomfort? I've mentioned that the physical discomfort thing is just fine right now, for however long or short, and intense or light, that it needs to be. But what about the discomfort of having your capability taken away? What is it like to be a yoga teacher who is limping around the studio with one broken wing?

One answer, a real temptation, is to go into pity mode. Why me? When will this ever be resolved? And worse, how can I practice or teach without my down dog pose (you maybe know this one, hands and feet on the floor, butt up in the air, like a two-sided human tent)? Then there's the pride option: I'm going to look pretty strange, hobbling between my mat and the wall of the studio, trying to keep up and failing any appearance of that. There are also the temptations of anxiety, depression, resignation, denial, annoyance, frustration, sloth; there's a multitude of lousy places to take this, right? Some of these have attempted a visit as well, trust me.

Today I was at my beloved Thursday morning yoga class with Jeanne Ann Whittington. Jeanne Ann, ever generous, had agreed to focus this class, at my request, on shoulder function and alignment. As an acupuncturist, Chinese medicine practitioner and super-alignment Anusara yoga teacher, Jeanne Ann is an expert in my book at helping one work wisely with such a shoulder disability. So here I was, facing a movement class designed at my specific request, with a choice. Do I skip the class? The shoulder's been hurting more in the last few days, and I certainly know I need to protect it from damage. But I also know that it's possible to stay very present to sensation and actually learn a lot by working through the physical experience of this shoulder moving in its limited range. And I prefer if at all possible to keep the rest of my body awake, open and strong. So I went for it. And if you'd been a fly on the wall, it would have looked pretty strange, this asymmetrical, floppy arm, half-there series of movements I followed.

But here's what was cool: this practice became very clear because I had no idea what I could do. You know what that is: It's beginner mind! I had a million questions to work through...How can I move this? Can I do this pose at all? What does it feel like? Where is the edge between comfortable work and painful striving? How does it feel to crumble on the mat and give up when you'd normally be flowing through the thick of it? What can I do here, and what can I gracefully (maybe, I'm ever hopeful)  surrender to not having, today? Everything was new today on my mat. What a gift!

There came a point when I remembered that this is always life, and will be until my last breath. There's arising and passing away of strength, of mobility, of physical capability. I had a view of myself in my last day on earth, breathing. I pictured myself saying, what do I have here? Okay, got breath, nothing else anymore. So how is this breath? Is it as full as possible, right now? How about this one? Not really with all these words, but just tasting, exploring and maybe even enjoying the experience of still being priveleged to breathe, whether quietly, or labored or panicky.

So don't worry about me, or my shoulder, or anything. Because I won't. It's all an adventure, seeing what I've got today and doing the best I can with that. And how about you? What can you do, right now?