Like Balancing a Pot of Oil on One’s Head: Single-mindedness in the Era of Multi-tasking
When I was a young girl, I could only ever focus my attention on one thing at a time. Fortunately, during my youth, life was quite simple: school was for learning, the playground was for playing, and at home I could engage in a variety of single-minded activities, be it eating, reading, riding a bike, or watching TV. This gradually began to change as I grew older and life became more complex, more demanding. In my teenage years, I recall my friends becoming really irritated because I struggled to answer what they deemed to be a simple question while I was already immersed in a full-blown discussion with another peer. And learning how to drive was a nightmare! “You mean I am supposed to look at the road, while steering a wheel, while shifting gears, while engaging my left and right feet in completely opposite directions?!”
Amid the exponential development of technologies and social media platforms, multi-tasking is often presented as a pre-requisite to surviving life in the 21st century. In my adulthood, I have certainly developed many habits that allow me to divert my attention to multiple activities at once. Who needs a lunch break when you can eat your sandwich, pack up your bag for your next meeting, have a conversation over the phone, and glimpse at incoming emails all at the same time? There is a real sense of exhilaration that can grow from dealing with many things at once, and this is because so-called multi-tasking releases dopamine in the brain, a motivational chemical that provides us with a sense of contentment. In recent years, however, studies have shown that what we call multi-tasking is in fact the process of switching rapidly from one task to another, and that while this may feel good, it can have detrimental effects not only on our productivity, but also on our quality of life.
In the early Buddhist cannon, Shakyamuni Buddha uses a parable about balancing a pot of oil on one’s head, providing a perfect illustration of the importance of giving our undivided attention to any one thing at a time. He asks his followers to imagine that a crowd has gathered around a talented beauty queen and poses the following conundrum:
Then a man comes along, desiring life & shrinking from death, desiring pleasure & abhorring pain. They say to him, “Now look here, mister. You must take this bowl filled to the brim with oil and carry it on your head in between the great crowd & the beauty queen. A man with a raised sword will follow right behind you, and wherever you spill even a drop of oil, right there will he cut off your head.” Now what do you think, monks: Will that man, not paying attention to the bowl of oil, let himself be distracted outside?
I have given you this parable to convey a meaning. The meaning is this: The bowl filled to the brim with oil stands for mindfulness immersed in the body. Thus you should train yourselves: “We will develop mindfulness immersed in the body. We will pursue it, hand it the reins and take it as a basis, give it grounding, steady it, consolidate it, and undertake it well.” That is how you should train yourselves. (SN 47.20)
Many of us have come to believe that in order to successfully balance a pot of oil on our head, we would do best to take on additional responsibilities along the way. But is this truly helpful when it comes to accomplishing our responsibilities, and perhaps more importantly, our dreams?
In Buddhism we are encouraged to investigate the workings of the mind, and as such over the past few months I have paid close attention to my approach to completing tasks. Initially, when I tried to focus on a single task for a set amount of time, I noticed boredom. I caught myself thinking, “What about the other project? Perhaps I should see if so and so has responded yet.” The more I observed, the more I recognized how these thoughts distracted me from the task at hand. Even when I held back from my impulse to check my email, or to make a quick call to another client, my focus was drawn away from the very thing I was trying to work on, so much so that a couple of hours in, my single task remained uncompleted.
Yet as time went on and I continued to practice, I noticed many benefits. First of all, if I was able to sit through the initial sense of boredom and keep returning to the task at hand, I was able to recognize the significance of the task as a whole. Seeing this clearly allowed me to cultivate enthusiasm to tackle the task in all its complexity. And with this enthusiasm came some new creative approaches, which I would have been unlikely to cultivate if I had also been working on other tasks at the same time. It also allowed me to recognize how long each task actually takes to complete, which is invaluable when it comes to scheduling and prioritizing. But perhaps most pleasing of all is that my mind was generally clearer, and I felt less stressed than usual and far more engaged in the present moment.
It is early days in my experiment, and only time will tell if I can continue to practice in this way in an era of ever-increasing productivity demands. All I know for sure is that, for the time being, I revel in focusing on the precious pot of oil on my head!
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