Most of us living in America (and especially those of us living in New York City) are familiar with the concept of Multi-Tasking…
The other day I was standing in my kitchen. With one hand I was typing on the computer, which was resting on the island. With the other I was attempting to pry a slice off of a loaf of frozen bread with the first clean knife I had found – a viciously sharp paring blade.
It just so happened that what I was typing was a google search for Thich Naht Hanh, searching for a saying I half-remembered and wanted for an article that I was writing. After clicking on a promising link in the google list, I grasped the loaf of bread, which was being difficult, with one hand and drove the knife into it with the other. With my eyes on the computer screen, I didn’t see the knife imbedded in my palm until after I felt it – a deep throb of pain and black-cherry blood from the pad at the base of my thumb.
This was what I had been reading:
“When we are mindful, deeply in touch with the present moment, our understanding of what is going on deepens, and we begin to be filled with acceptance, joy, peace and love.”
Hopping around the kitchen and clasping my injured palm in the universal oh-my-god-this-hurts-so-bad dance, I glowered in the direction of the computer and muttered a brief fuck-you to the enlightened being whose quote floated on the screen.
Sometimes messages from the universe are so clear as to be deeply annoying.
When I told my dear friend Kate the above story, expecting her to laugh at its absurdity and perhaps feel some sympathy for me, she responded by shaking her head and smiling, as though it was a perfectly predictable thing for me to do.
“You’re such a multi-tasker,” she said.
Multi-tasking is something that is ingrained in me to such an extent that I don’t even notice it. A pot of rice will be simmering while my laundry spins and I shower, writing copy in my head while lathering and frequently forgetting whether I just shampooed or not. I waste much time trying to save time.
The only tasks that get my full, undivided attention for any length of time are writing fiction and practicing yoga, and even these are often interrupted by thoughts, ideas, dreams and cravings. Every once in a while this habit serves me, like when I find an end to the story that I’m writing in a yoga class, inspired by the feelings a pose induces or the words of the instructor.
Mostly, though, my multi-tasking results in shrunken sweaters, pots boiling over, and yes, stigmata-like holes in my palms.
So why do I do it?
I’m not sure when it began, or who I learned it from, but I have an innate sense of passing time. Daytime television rang an eerie existential bell when they came up with the tagline “Like sand through the hourglass, so are the Days of Our Lives.” It’s true, each millisecond another grain of sand drops, and I am constantly rushing, so determined to catch the falling grains that I lose sight of reality. For each grain of sand I pick up I leave a trail behind me. It’s a battle that I have no chance of winning.
“Never put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today,” is an adage that I have taken as my battle cry, warping it into “Never put off ‘til an hour from now what you can do right now.” I am constantly packing as much into a minute as I can, and my excuse is usually that if I get it all done now, I can relax and enjoy the moment better later. But when later comes, there’s something else to be done.
Mindfulness, mindfulness is the chant of yogis. But the words that we speak and the way that we live do not always match, especially in a city with a consciousness that matches my own. I used to live in San Diego, and trying to get anything done quickly felt like swimming in Jell-O, watching the moments fall through the hourglass without being able to do a thing. I love New York partly because the pace of life is aimed at racing ahead of those grains of sand, somehow to build a shield against their inevitable descent.
Mindfulness often conjures up for me a yogi sitting and observing a flower, lost in the curves and dips of the petals. Lovely, peaceful, makes for a beautiful poster of zen to hang in the bathroom – but after a few moments I would be ready to move on, to do something already. This is when I remember and take solace in Kerouac’s Japhy Ryder from Dharma Bums.
When I first read Dharma Bums in college I was immediately drawn to Ryder. Ray Smith, the main character, had an unsteady life that made me nervous – he never accomplished anything, never did much but sit and meditate and get drunk. But Ryder was different. Ryder spent days holed up in his little cabin, writing poems and doing research. In one scene, he explains to Smith, who is lying under a bush staring at the sky, that Ryder’s meditation is the meditation of action. Then he runs off down a hill to chop some wood.
This is the kind of mindfulness I can appreciate, and it helps me to see the futility of multi-taksing. Sitting still is not in my nature, and berating myself for that won’t get me anywhere. But the mindfulness of action, of accomplishment, of being in the moment with a project – that’s something I can aspire to.
So that’s my next mission. No longer to sit and strain, or to chop at various parts of my body by accident while trying to accomplish too many things at once. From now on I will attempt to focus on each project as a beautiful whole, and soak in it completely. Maybe then I will learn why we’re in this hourglass. Or at least I will have a better understanding of the sand.