One Thing at a Time, part 1 of 3

I’ll be off-line for two and a half weeks for a self-retreat. Meanwhile, I’ll be sharing an essay that may be helpful to you, as it is to me.

One Thing at a Time, an essay by Andrew Olendzki [from his collection, Unlimiting Mind, published by Wisdom Publications/Boston]

(Part 1 of 3):

Don’t go back over what is past,
Nor yearn for what is yet to be.
What has passed has been abandoned,
And the future is not yet here.
The state arising here and now-
see it with insight as it is!

– from MN 131, translated by Andrew Olendzki

When the Buddha says, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great harm than an unrestrained mind” [AN 1.4], I think he is referring to the current passion for multi-tasking. When the mind tries to do several things at once, it does not do any of them very well. This is an empirical fact attested to by numerous experiments, and is easily demonstrated for oneself: try simultaneously texting a message while driving, guided by your GPS through an unfamiliar neighborhood, while catching the latest sports scores on the radio and discussing some recent relationship difficulty with your partner.

It is not that the mind is incapable of such feats of parallel processing, it’s just not a very healthy thing to do. One image in the Pali texts [AN 5.51] compares the flow of consciousness to a mountain stream flowing swiftly downhill. If there are several outlets through which the water is dispersed, then when it reaches the plain it will be little more than a trickle. Mental energy is finite, and our mind is diminished in direct proportion to how much its attention is fractured. The problem is not so much attention deficit as it is attention dispersion, when the available attention is spread thin. Just like water spreading out to cover a surface, the wider the expanse the shallower the depth. By trying to do many things at once we are training the mind to process information in ways that may well be effective and even become habitual, but the price to be paid for this is no longer being deeply aware of what we are doing.

About lynnjkelly

Australian/American. Practicing Buddhist.
This entry was posted in Causes and results, Mindfulness. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to One Thing at a Time, part 1 of 3

  1. Priscilla says:

    Excellent post Lynn. Thanks you so much and hope your self retreat is nourishing and insightful.

  2. Anonymous says:

    As normal, brilliantly wise and eminently sensible! Thank you for giving this..

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