Like so many of us, I had become quite accomplished at multitasking. I could be on a conference call, reading email, balancing my checkbook and eating at the same time. Or more accurately, I could move back and forth between multiple ongoing activities quickly and almost seamlessly. I believed that information lost in these transitions was minimal – I could fake undivided attention and pretty much get away with it.
All the while my brain would rush along unfocused in other directions at lightning speed, because most of what I was “doing” required minimal attention.
But once my ALS symptoms became more pronounced I realized that inattentive multitasking would have to be replaced with real focus on one activity at a time. No more talking while eating. No more simply strolling lost in thought – now every step requires dedicated concentration. And the consequences of not paying attention can be serious – falling, choking, or worse.
The multitasking lifestyle made mindfulness almost impossible for me. My feeble attempts at meditation or mind-calming were mostly not very successful. That difficulty was ironic because doing all these ”simultaneous” activities was so automatic I rarely thought about them, leaving plenty of brain cycles to become calm and focused. So, I imagined, now that every movement requires dedicated attention, perhaps I can apply that attentiveness to give mindfulness another try.
Sorry to report it is not going that well with that mindfulness thing. I try to sit quietly, just being attentive to my breathing, but after a minute or so the black cloud of my disease (and the fear it engenders) looms ahead and darkens the bright sky of clarity that was starting to become more luminous.
So I must learn to apply that same dedicated activity focus to “non-activities” such as meditation and stillness. Just as I am working hard physically to maintain as much strength as I can, I must now begin training my conscious mind to focus on being still and accepting. Not an easy task.
I am fond of using a river metaphor to help me understand my journey. I imagine myself in a canoe on a quickly flowing stream laced with eddies and whirlpools. The strong current will take me where it will. I must trust it because I cannot fight it for long. But I cannot passively sit and float – that is a recipe for disaster against the rocks and the shoreline. I must actively “read” the current and actively steer the canoe. I must keep a firm grip on my paddle.
So what is called for is single-minded focus on steering my life to calm places where I can catch my breath, take inventory and be attentive to the signs that will help me chart my course. Working hard at mindfulness – the irony is delicious.