How multitasking leads to ignorance
By Andrew Olendzki
© Mark Harwood
When the Buddha says, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great harm than an unrestrained mind,” I think he is referring, in part, to the current penchant for multitasking. When the mind tries to do several things at once, it does not do any of them very well. This is an empirical fact proven by numerous experiments, and it is easy to test out for yourself: try texting a message while catching the latest baseball scores on the radio and discussing some recent relationship difficulty with your partner.
It is not that the mind is incapable of such feats of parallel processing— it’s just not a very healthy thing to do. One image in the Pali texts compares the flow of consciousness to a mountain stream flowing swiftly downhill. If there are several outlets through which the water is dispersed, when it reaches the plain it will be little more than a trickle. Mental energy is finite, and our mind is diminished in direct proportion to how much its attention is fractured. The problem is not so much attention deficit as it is attention dispersion, when the available attention is spread thin. Just like water spreading out to cover a surface, the wider the expanse the shallower the depth. By trying to do many things at once, we train the mind to process information in ways that may well be effective, but for a price: we can no longer be deeply aware of what we are doing.
Of course, being deeply aware of what we are doing is the very crux of the Buddhist teachings, which is why the practice of meditation is so important for unifying and consolidating the mind. The Buddha said, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great welfare than a developed mind.” Concentration practice, known as samadhi, consists of gathering together and placing the mind upon an object of the senses, or upon a mental object. We do this reflexively all the time, but in Buddhist practice we are invited to do it with deliberate intention, with sustained energy, and with consistency over multiple mind moments.
It is natural for the mind to resist such discipline and to wander off to any aspect of experience that is new, unusual, or apparently more interesting. Early humans did not survive in nature by ignoring incoming stimuli; like birds or chipmunks, we are more accustomed to glancing around constantly, attentive to both threat and opportunity. But most of us no longer live in a hostile natural environment, and the threats that confront us in the meditation hall are usually manufactured by our minds. Cultivating mental focus, consistently returning to a primary object, and settling into ever-deeper states of tranquility helps to gradually reign in the mind’s wandering in a way that consolidates the power of awareness.
According to the Buddhist way of looking at things, each moment of consciousness is a precious gift. Awareness itself is the primary currency of the human condition, and as such it deserves to be spent carefully. Sitting quietly in a serene environment, letting go of the various petty disturbances that roil and diminish consciousness, and experiencing as fully as possible the poignancy of this fleeting moment—this is an enterprise of deep intrinsic value, an aesthetic experience beyond words. The more unified, stable, luminous, and attentive the mind is at this moment, the more profound the experience.
Our contemporary view of consciousness is so different from this, so much less. It is as if the accomplishment of mere tasks is of primary value, while the quality of awareness with which these tasks are undertaken is irrelevant. One can hurtle through the day doing this, that, and the other thing—often simultaneously—with great busyness and pressure, only to relax in the evening by trying to keep up with images that flash across the television screen multiple times per second. For many of us, the deep states of tranquil alertness of which the mind is capable are entirely unknown.
Yes, the chattering, cavorting, cacophonous monkey mind is capable of clever deeds and great mischief, and these things are not entirely without value. But the mind is also capable of settling down, gathering its power, and turning its gaze upon itself, and in such instances it can come to know itself deeply. Buddhists call this gaining wisdom, and this too is a valuable thing to do.
More importantly, perhaps, it is a healthy thing to do. It is now well known that a restful body is healthier than a body in constant states of stress. It is becoming better known that a restful mind is healthier than a mind beset with anxiety, compulsion, addiction, and other agitating states. It may even turn out to be the case that a restful society is healthier than one beset with tension, prejudice, exploitation, and war. I hope we have a chance to find out someday.
Meanwhile, peace is accessible. This, too, is an empirically demonstrable fact: try turning off the radio, the phone, the computer, and the TV; sit comfortably in a quiet place, relaxing the body and mind; mindfully breathe in, mindfully breathe out, and abandon—just for now—any thought or response that tends to disperse and divide your awareness. As you do this successfully for several moments in a row, you will find the mind gradually becoming more tranquil, more focused, more clear, and more powerful. The Buddha might have said: “I know of no single thing healthier than doing one thing at a time.”
Andrew Olendzki, Ph.D., is the executive director and senior scholar at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies, in Barre, Massachussetts. He is the editor of Insight Journal.
Image: ©Mark Harwood/Getty Images