When’s the last time you closed your eyes and savored the food you were eating? When’s the last time you were able to pick out the cumin from the coriander, the crunchy from the crisp, or velvety from creamy? When’s the last time you allowed yourself the pleasure of that experience? The experience of not just tasting, but reveling in food.
It’s impossible to revel in one thing while doing something else. Reveling implies an immersive experience. We allow ourselves to be fully captured by the moment, and to feel the full scope of what that moment has to offer. Most people only pay that kind of singular attention to food on special occasions. In fact, it seems like that kind of singular attention, regardless of whether it’s directed towards food, is only ever deployed for special occasions.
Doing one thing at a time does not appear to be our default. Instead of luxuriating in a delicious meal, we more often tend to scarf it down while scrolling our newsfeeds, bingeing Netflix, or catching up on work. This sort of behavior seems like a misguided way to try and fit as much of life into as little time as possible. Instead of enjoying the depth of a single experience, living becomes a series of shallow realities trampling upon one another. Perhaps we’re impatient, or perhaps we feel like there’s no other way — that modern life with all of its complexities and simultaneity simply does not afford us the luxury and simplicity of doing one thing at a time. In most cases, though, this is a rationalization. A life lie that’s turned into our default mode of being. We default to multitasking not because we can’t afford simplicity, but because it’s easy. Infinite distraction is at our fingertips and we have been conditioned not to say no.
The research surrounding multitasking is damning. A battery of papers decries its consequences — citing everything from medical misconduct, to reduced grey matter. Given these deleterious effects, we might assume that the opposite, doing one thing at a time, provides benefits that go beyond the highs savoring our food. If we consider meditation as a form of doing one thing at a time, the evidence is compelling.
Meditation is a practice that seeks to hone the faculties of awareness and attention just by following the breath or some other meditation object. It’s difficult. It’s boring. The mind craves stimulation that it doesn’t find in the breath, so it wanders; through worries, plans, hopes, disappointments, and dreams. It wanders and wanders until it reaches an epiphany — the realization that attention has shifted away from the breath. There’s an attempt to direct it back, and it starts all over again…
According to Culadasa, a renowned teacher of meditation and neuroscience, the wanderings of the mind are not something we can consciously control. In his book, The Mind Illuminated, he offers a way to wrangle our roving consciousness:
We can’t use our will to control how long we remain focused on one thing. Instead, an unconscious process weighs the importance of what we’re focusing on against other possible objects of attention. If an object is important or interesting enough, attention remains stable. If something else is judged more important or interesting, then the balance tips, and attention moves elsewhere.
Even though this weighing process isn’t under our conscious control, we can still influence it through consciously held intentions. Just by intending to observe an object and to come back whenever we get distracted, we’re training that unconscious process to help us stay focused more continuously.
If we’re ever to start doing one thing at a time it will begin with a strong and clear intention. It has to. We can’t will ourselves to quit getting distracted. We aren’t immune to the pull of addictive technologies. We can only hold a strong and clear intention to savor our food or sit down without unsheathing our phones or read a book in silence or walk down the street with our eyes on the horizon. If we begin to hold these intentions in mind, we act to make them happen, and the more we do that, the easier it gets. It boils down to a simple formula:
intentions lead to mental actions, and repeated mental actions become mental habits
On the road to regaining control of our attention, our most powerful and effective tool is diligence.