I’m over multi-tasking. I realize that it’s a highly prized skill here in the second decade of the 21st century, right up there with extreme couponing and ice-road trucking. But for me, the thrill is gone.
Once upon a time, I was a champion multitasker. I could talk on the phone while deveining shrimp, folding laundry, and supervising two toddlers in an adjacent room, all with a baby on one hip. We didn’t call it multitasking then. We called it motherhood.
Later, as a reporter for a daily newspaper, I learned to type a story on deadline while balancing a phone on my shoulder and fending off city editors pointing at their watches. I had colleagues who could do this while also chain-smoking unfiltered Camels, but I never mastered that art.
Nowadays I spend a lot of time disparaging people for texting while driving, texting while walking, texting while eating. I have perfected an icy glare for those who chatter on cell phones in the checkout line or the doctor’s waiting room. I sigh in exasperation at the techno-generation, glued to their iPads in front of the TV while scanning their phones as though they held the secrets of the universe. How, I wonder, do they hear themselves think?
Maybe that’s the point: not thinking. Mindlessness, the antidote to modern life. Maximum input, a constant barrage of information, images, noise washing over us like a giant wave. Or the kind of compulsive busyness that cancels out reflection, the quicksilver leaps from one task to the next, never stopping long enough to observe, assess, complete.
On the flip side of all this simultaneous activity is another burgeoning trend: mindfulness. Apparently when you burn out on multi-tasking, this is where you turn. It’s a practice of presence in the moment that reduces stress and anxiety, stills the “monkey mind” and its endless chatter.
I’m here to tell you it’s not exactly a piece of cake. I’ve been practicing my own version of mindfulness for some time now, and I’m beginning to understand what one spiritual master meant when he said that the first 20 years are the hardest. There’s no instant gratification involved.
But there is, over time, a certain dimming of the interior strobe lights, a quieting of the internal din. Detachment from the tyranny of racing thoughts comes slowly, haltingly, but it does come. The hardest part is the stolid, uncritical waiting. It feels like nothing, and yet it is everything.
Here in early March, when most trees are still dark and leafless, I understand the process best. There is nothing about the oak in my side yard to suggest a green inner life. It looks as drab and unlovely as my soul when I examine it. Nothing I do, no task, multi or otherwise, can alter its appearance. The tree is waiting, obedient to some interior rhythm, surrendered to a hidden power and grace.
When I consider it, this is a kind of relief. In a few weeks, with no human intervention, the oak will be wrapped in a green haze. A day or so later, there will be leaves. There will be shade. There will be the spring wind stirring its branches. I might sit under it and read the poem “When I am Among the Trees,” by Mary Oliver. She speaks of the oaks and the pines and their hints of gladness, and says that they save her, and daily. In a mindful moment, I might believe that I, too, “have come into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled/with light, and to shine.”