Four articles in three sections of today’s The New York Times on how we do (and don’t) focus our minds – and how we can (and might) do so for the better. They’re onto something.
In his review of Daniel Goleman’s new book, “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence,” Nicholas Carr describes how Stephen Dedalus “monitors his thoughts without reining them in” as an example of open awareness, one of many types of awareness Goleman details (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/focus-by-daniel-goleman.html?smid=pl-share). In “Jumper Cables for the Mind,” Dan Hurley reports on tDCS at Harvard’s Laboratory of Neuromodulation, and research that shows low voltage electrical brain stimulation seems to enhance any number of cognitive functions(http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/magazine/jumper-cables-for-the-mind.html?smid=pl-share). David Hochman, in “Mindfulness at Every Turn,” details the increasing reach of mindfulness: the Marine Corps, Silicon Valley, The Huffington Post (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/fashion/mindfulness-and-meditation-are-capturing-attention.html?smid=pl-share). And Clive Thompson’s “Brain Game,” the subject of Walter Isaacson’s review, proposes an increasing reliance on “intelligence amplification,” human cognition harnessed to the power of computers (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/03/books/review/smarter-than-you-think-by-clive-thompson.html?smid=pl-share).
As a psychologist and psychotherapist who has been involved in mindfulness education since the late ’60’s (when it was called meditation), and integrative medicine before it had a name, this explosion of interest in expanding awareness and increasing attention – improving the powers of the mind – thrills me. I’m all for anything that increases compassionate awareness and improves attention: for my clients, my patients, our children, and certainly myself.
The idea of “more, better” is as American as it gets, and I’m all for more and better when it comes to the mind. But I’ve got some reservations about the how of all this. The selling of mindfulness seems somehow antithetical to the very acceptance mindfulness cultivation strives for. And it may seem a strange thing for a psychologist whose focus is on problem solving to say, but life is not simply a problem to be solved.
Hegel supposed that all art is a reflection of the time in which it is created; the same is no doubt true of the psychological arts. Ours is a time when excellence is valued. Not necessarily the pursuit of excellence, however. We like our accomplishments big and easy and fast. And the improvement of mental functioning, while often shockingly quick when we begin proper training, is indeed a lifelong practice. In it for the long haul, not simply for today’s trend.
Training takes practice. So why bother?
When we correlate attention solely with achievement, we limit what the mind can do even as we improve our chances for success. Just as an efficient laser requires vast numbers of atoms in an excited state, our human laser-like focus, so crucial for excellence in completing many tasks, requires a ramping up of very specific kinds of attention. As we learn more about the brain’s neuroplasticity – and apply ever more sophisticated technology – exciting real life applications will allow us to improve attention. An eye surgeon focuses his attention as well as his laser beam, and a good thing that is. But while a laser can attain and sustain this heightened excitation and focus, we, on the other hand, experience stress in response to the demand for constant laser-like focus. We can focus our attention sharply and well – but only for so long.
We also require rest.
But what is the nature of the rest we require? Not the sort of lack of attention we often choose: multi-tasking, zoning out, mindlessly watching tv, texting while talking and walking. Divided attention does not refresh, it simply provides a break from the intensity of single focus attention.
What is the awareness that refreshes?
Open awareness, mindfulness, the meditative state. The form really doesn’t matter. Pick and choose, try a form that suits, or try one and switch to another. What matters is the ongoing practice of focusing awareness, even while accepting all the gyrations of mind that accompany the attempt to do so. We can quiet the “monkey mind” with practice, but not by ignoring or drugging away our thoughts and feelings.
Focused attention AND open awareness. We need both for success in accomplishing our goals, and success in living a fulfilled life. Both. And both can be improved – greatly – through practice. It may seem an oxymoron, but research has shown what generations (and other cultures) know: the work of improving attention and awareness mean less stress, increased productivity, and happier lives.
* Mindfulness Disorder, with and without hyperactivity
Copyright © 2013 Marlin S. Potash, Ed.D. All rights reserved.