Ironicschmoozer’s Weblog

Sermon: “Mindfulness Multitasking: What Would the Buddha Do?”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Unitarian Universalist Society of Sacramento

Hymns:  #175 (From the Crush of Wealth and Power), #201 (Glory, Glory, Hallelujah),

#163 (For the Earth Forever Turning).


Reading:  from Chapter 2 of Walden, by Henry   David Thoreau (interrupted by the skit…)


Liturgical Skit:  Battle for Attention between Worship Leader (Taylor L.) and the Minister

–You had to be there!

Sermon: Mindfulness and Multitasking

In 1854 the American Transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau asked:  “Why should we live in such a hurry and waste of life?”  In the century and a half since then, our situation not gotten any better.  We rush through life, and miss too much of it.  A current ingredient of this problem, and a sign of it, is our obsession with multitasking.

Multitasking is this:  doing two or more activities at the same time, even though each thing calls for your attention.  Multitasking can seem glamorous in this high-tech age, but it can be mundane as well.

I come home at night after a church meeting and heat up a late dinner.  I eat while reading a magazine and sitting in front of the computer, listening to a podcast and checking email.  Hungry for a little something sweet.  In the freezer:  Ben and Jerry’s ice cream…about a half pint left.  I’ll have only a few spoons of it, so I won’t bother to get a bowl out for it.  Sitting at the table, reading, I have few bites.  Then a few more, and a few more.  Now there’s hardly enough left in the carton to bother putting it back, so I’ll finish it off.

Now, I don’t remember the flavor, but its color was some shade of brown.  I don’t remember the magazine article I read either.  Or what I had for dinner.

Doing more than one thing at a time is not necessarily a problem.  After all, we are equipped to do more than one thing at a time.  We are complex organisms.  Right now your bodies are carrying on countless activities—in addition to listening to me (or at least sitting there) — your circulatory, digestive, and respiratory systems, your senses all are working hard:  multitasking.  In our brains and all our nerves, n every microscopic cell we have, there’s a lot going on.  The issue with multitasking is not the amount of activity, but whether we are aware of ourselves, whether we even experience ourselves.  What Thoreau called our hurry and waste of life comes from a lack of mindfulness.

In the Bay Area, I meet with a friend for deep-dish pizza, Chicago style—our favorite.  We catch up on our work lives.  I ask him about computers, he brings up spiritual stuff, and we finish the pizza.  “How did you like it?”  I ask.  “Uh, I don’t remember. I wasn’t really paying attention to it.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.   He has written a book, Wherever You Go, There You Are.  He says that no matter what diversions and obsessions we use to distract us from what’s going on in our lives, the fact is that we must face ourselves if we are to achieve peace in our lives.  The emphasis in the title is not on the wherever, but on the you:  Wherever you go, there you are.  Having a spiritual practice is a good way to learn to be with yourself, wherever you are.

Kabat-Zinn recommends a regular practice of mindfulness, like yoga, meditation, or prayer.  He says you can’t wait to be mindful only in “those moments when the big events hit.  They contain so much power they will overwhelm you.”  You’ve got to get ready for them.  He says that the practice of mindfulness “is the slow, disciplined work of digging trenches, of working in the vineyards, of [emptying out a pond with a bucket].  It is the work of moments and the work of a lifetime, all wrapped into one.”[i]

The practice is to give your attention to what’s going on in the moment. Mindfulness, attention, awareness—noticing of what we are experiencing in each moment that arises.  It’s simple, but far from easy.

Most of the time I am not sure if meditation works—especially when I am meditating.  A half hour passes, and I doubt that I’ve spent a total of seven minutes noticing my breathing, or the feeling of my seated body.  When my mind wanders, it’s easy to feel like a failure.  While I was at a mediation retreat, a teacher talked about the habit of judging ourselves —“I can’t even meditate right!  I don’t know how to sit still.  My mind wanders from thing to thing.”

But our teacher said that such moments of failure are in fact … occasions of success.  When we notice our mind has wandered, we are practicing awareness.  When we notice, we are practicing.  “Oh, my mind has wandered.” “Oh, I’m feeling impatient.”   “I’m thinking about work. How about that!”  “Oh, I’m feeling frustrated.”  “I’m worried.”  To notice is to practice. As Kabat-Zinn writes:  “It is in the coming back to mindfulness that seeing [takes place].”

One morning, after working out, I go to my car, put my gym bag in the trunk, and close it.   Now, where are my keys?  I just used them!   I search my pockets three times. Oops—they fell into the trunk before.  I’m stuck.  I call a towing service to get into my car.  Somehow, surprisingly, I decide that I am going to watch myself react to this experience.  I observe:  waiting, frustration, resentment, impatience, and self-blaming.  Interesting!  Deciding to watch my reactions saves me from being overwhelmed by them.  It’s even a bit funny.  It’s also funny that I have I paid more attention to my experience in these moments of waiting than I do while sitting on the meditation cushion, trying to pay attention to my breathing.  But perhaps there’s a connection.   Maybe the reason I don’t always get overwhelmed in the stressful times like losing my keys is because I have a regular practice of sitting, trying to notice my breath.

Seven years ago I attended a meditation retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center.  Five days of group meditation practices in relative silence—sitting, walking, eating, and doing a daily task—all as training in awareness.  I learned that everything I do, every challenge I encounter, and every reaction I have is an opportunity for practice—the practice of noticing, of being aware, open, and curious.  At the retreat we heard lectures (Dharma talks) nightly and individual meetings with a teacher.

We could also leave notes for our teachers on a bulletin board.  I wrote a few questions I thought were cute.  I asked this one:  “Teacher—I understand the practice of mindfulness and its purpose–being present with what’s going on.  Usually when I drive I listen to National Public Radio, and when I swim I think about my writing.  I like to read while eating.  Is multitasking okay, and can I do it mindfully?”

The answer soon was pinned on the message board.  Her written reply was brief:  “I find that doing one thing at a time to be a good practice.”

It was not the answer I wanted.  It was a challenge.  And this gentle challenge came even before I had a cell phone.  A cell phone, of course, multiplies your multitasking.

If I am working at home and feel bored, my first instinct is to check the computer for email.  If I’m away from a computer, boredom leads me to grab the cell phone.  With an advanced piece of equipment known as a smart phone, I can go just about anywhere, and do just about anything, except where I am and what I’m doing.  This impulse comes out of restlessness with whatever I’m doing.

I have had the impulse to use the phone while driving, and given in to it.  Back before it was against the law, when I would be on the road and would see other drivers talking on cell phones, I would feel outrage.  How selfish, how insensitive, how un-aware they are!  But when I made a call, I felt justified.  I wanted to say to other drivers:  “Really, it’s only a short one, and if you knew how important it is, you wouldn’t judge me for it!”

Years ago, before California banned cell phones while driving, I was on a road trip with a friend.  I was driving down the multi-lane highway Interstate 880, in the East Bay.  We were having a good conversation.  My phone rang.  Without thinking, I shifted my body to get the phone out of my pocket.  This brought about a change of one or two lanes on the interstate.  Then I spoke on the phone for a few minutes, while driving.  This was the wrong thing to do.

Clearly upset, my friend gave me a short talking-to.  He invited me to think about why somebody with my ethical values would ignore those values by putting myself, and him, and other people at risk on the road.  It was the wrong thing to do.  But he was the right person to do it in front of, because he brought me back to mindfulness.  By challenging me, he invited me to further practice in being aware of my actions.

I’ve read that talking on the phone while Ωdriving lowers your awareness and response time as much as if you were to

have more alcohol in your blood stream than the legal driving limit allows.

It’s not handling the phone that’s the problem—it’s the conversation. Talking on the phone takes attention, takes it away from the important task at hand. Thank goodness there’s a law now—not only for safety, but for my sanity.

Yet, when I am bored on the road, I am tempted.  Sometimes I pull the phone out of my pocket, so I can have it ready when I reach my destination.

The need to pay attention on the road is an example of the ethical implications of mindfulness.  You can also raise questions about social justice through the lens of mindfulness.  For example, one of the most hazardous jobs in the country is that of a meat cutter. What used to be a trade, even a craft, butchering has been made into cheap, assembly line work.   Many of the low-wage workers who butcher and package meat and poultry to suffer repetitive motion injuries.  They risk the loss of fingers, hands, eyes, limbs—and even their lives.  One reason we can buy inexpensive meat is that speeding up assembly-line forms of processing saves money.  Yet it makes it harder for a worker to be mindful.  It can turn a moment of boredom or a lapse of attention into a deadly mistake.

For most people I know, the challenge of paying attention is not a life or death matter.   We are privileged if our distractible mind is only a cause of emotional stress, as damaging as that can be in itself.

But mindfulness can protect us in ordinary situations too. I live in a unit at the top of a set of stairs.  Sometimes I leave in a hurry, with a few things to carry—backpack and computer, gym bag, newspaper, a bag with lunch in it.  You know I’m in a hurry on a Sunday morning, which is of course the time of the week when I am supposed to be the most grounded!  Sometimes, when I carry too much and think about too much at once, I trip on the top step, and struggle to catch my balance.  I realize—oh, this is how people sometimes fall down stairs.  They don’t get up and say, “I think I’ll take a tumble today!”  They think all kinds of other things.  They don’t think about what their body is doing, and that they are about to go down the stairs.  So now, when go out and look down the stairs I say, “Okay, here are the stairs.  I’m about to go down them.  Am I steady?”  Well, I try to do that.  It’s a practice—always room for more practice.

I knew someone who had a practice of stopping every hour of the day for two minutes, sitting in her chair and watching her breathing.  Of course, she worked at home, so it was easier to take a two-minute break every hour.  Some people, while in traffic, will use a red light as  trigger or a reminder to notice their breathing. Red light, notice my breathing.  Are there any activities or triggers in your ordinary life to remind you to come back to mindfulness?

Do you have others who can support you in the practice of mindfulness?  It doesn’t have to be someone at home.  Support for this practice can show up in all kinds of  places.

On Sunday mornings, I am in a rush to get here, often running behind.  As my car and I zoom up here on Highway 50, I have the help of a meditation teacher… sitting along the highway in a black and white car with lights on the top. This teacher wears a badge and a uniform and has a radar device.  The presence of the Highway Patrol car is an invitation to pay attention to what I am doing.  It is an invitation to notice.

You can practice awareness when eating.  If you eat with others, you could enjoy a shared meal in silence:  cook in silence, and then sit and ea in silence.  Afterward, reflect on the experience and talk about it.  If you eat alone, you can try eating without reading or watching TV.

One meditation teacher recommends that you try taking a bite of food and then putting our fork down to chew.  He says that the Buddha advised that you stop eating your meal about five bites before you’re full!  This calls for close awareness to how you’re feeling as you eat.   But how can you determine what it feels like to be five bites away from full?  Maybe it’s the Buddha’s joke on us.

When this teacher works on the computer, he tries to keep a small fraction of his attention to watch himself working, so he is not totally absorbed in his work.  He tries to notice the feel of the keystrokes and the plastic clicking sound, and to be aware of himself sitting there.

Dr. Kabat-Zinn writes: “[Try] to use ordinary, repetitive occasions in your own [life] as invitations to practice mindfulness.  Going to the door, answering the telephone, … going to the bathroom…going to the refrigerator—all can be occasions to slow down and be more in touch with each present moment.  Notice the inner feelings which push you toward the telephone or the doorbell on the first ring.”

He asks: “Why does your response time have to be so fast that it pulls you out of the life you were living in the preceding moment?  Can [your] transitions become more graceful?”[ii]

A meditation practice is a commitment.  It may not be the right one for you, or it may not be a practice you can start at this time.  There is no use in judging oneself harshly over this.  Indeed, the cultivation of kindness and compassion is a primary purpose of spiritual practice—and this includes being compassionate and kind to yourself.  But even without a regular practice of our own, life gives us many opportunities to be mindful, many moments to pay attention.

Here I am eating…what am I eating?  What does it taste like?

Here I am…preparing to go down the stairs, am I steady?

Here I am pulling my cell phone out, opening my computer, what else am I doing?

Here I am, uncomfortable in a social situation. What does this feel like?  What does it feel like in my body?

Dr. Kabbat-Zinn recommends:  “[Try] being present for things like taking a shower….  When you are in the shower, are you really in the shower?  Do you feel the water on your skin, or are you someplace else, lost in thought, missing the shower altogether.”[iii]

I invite you to ask one another—after church today, or over coffee some other time, or at a meeting—what helps you return to awareness of yourself and what you’re doing?  What helps you return to the present and simply notice?  And what have you noticed?

Life gives us unending invitations to notice, and countless moments to return to.

A daily mindfulness practice can make a difference, to be sure, but if you don’t have time for one yet, that’s okay.  There is no shortage of moments in which to be present.

When you become aware that you just missed a few moments, then you must be noticing a new moment now.  You are noticing!  “It is in coming back to the moment that seeing [takes place].”[iv]

Try asking yourself, “Am I awake now?”  When you think to ask the question, the answer will be yes.

So may it be.  Amen.

[i] Wherever You Go, There You Are, by John Kabat-Zinn, New York:  Hyperion, 1994, p. 111.

[ii] Ibid., p. 202-3.

[iii] Ibid., p. 203.

[iv] Ibid., p. 160.


Family Minister Goes to Sunday School–Junior High Youth Group

Last Sunday I was the guest presenter in JHYG, the Junior High Youth Group (grades 6-8).   Ginny, one of the amazing lead teachers, was my host.  Taylor, one of the amazing church dads and leaders here, was a guest teacher.  Ginny’s check in question was “one thing that you appreciate from this past week.”

We talked about sacred space and sacred places, and what makes them sacred or special.  I asked them to take a minute of silence and think about examples of sacred spaces for themselves.  Most folks had something to say.  Taylor talked about sacred places in nature.  Ginny introduced Stonehenge and showed some pictures.

We looked at two posters with lots of pictures of houses of worship from different work religions.  We looked at three posters with color photographs of various UU church buildings around North America.  Most looked vintage post-World War II (like ours, built for the baby boom kids and families), but some dated to the 1800s and King’s Chapel dates to the 1600s (Unitarian since the late 1700s).

I showed them diagrams the size of place mats (and laminated too) showing the whole 6-acre campus.  Made by our Grasshoppers (the volunteers who mow and trim the grass, etc.), the diagram shows the names of all the sections of the campus:  oak grove, memorial garden, patio lawn, minister’s office lawn, preschool playground, main playground, volleyball area, rose bed, etc.  The most intriguing was “twilight zone.”  I passed out the “place mats” and they studied them in small groups.

Then we went on a walking meditation, further delaying enjoyment of Ginny’s homemade cookies.  It was to  be a silent meditation. Before we left, the adults told them about the wildlife that lives here or passes by: squirrels (lots), crows, opossums, wild turkeys, and at least one pair of big bushy-tailed skunks.

I led, and Taylor followed the group at the rear.  We walked by the community garden (UURTHSONG), and down the length of our parking lot, along chain-link fence that separates us from the many two-story apartment buildings.  We walked by the trees and wrought-iron fence separating UUSS from the enormous Woodside Sierra condo complex.  We walked by the rose bed, the oak grove (and looked at the “mini oak trees,” as someone called them later.  The senior high group had planted them in summer with Taylor’s oversight), the big evergreen trees, through the twilight zone to the meorial garden.  We walked by the Ben Franklin Thinking Bench and a few small stones with another former member’s names on them.  Esther Franklin was in the sanctuary with a photo of Ben for our Dia de los Muertos altar.  He died 20 years ago.)

We walked by the creek (drainage ditch between the church and the duplex apartments we own) and then behind the sanctuary exterior and by the two green Dumpsters.  We heard the congregation singing the closing hymn (a bit early!) and then crossed the patio and went back for cookies.

I asked them to pause in silence for a minute and think about what they had noticed.  The responses were varied.  I had noticed two youth giggling now and then.  One noticed another’s squeaky sneakers.  One noticed a pile of paving stones behind the church.  One mentioned a squirrel that didn’t fun from us.

I also noticed how easy it is to take all the different aspects of the campus for granted when one is rushing in and out, or shuttling between two offices.  It certainly shifts your perspective to approach the familiar on foot, and from a different direction.

Then I showed them the new UUSS Master Plan–the recent architectural drawings by Jeff Gold.  I pointed out the classroom building we were in and the additions and changes proposed, and the main hall, with walls to be expanded so it’s a larger space (seating up to 375), and the new restrooms, meeting rooms, storage rooms, AND an all-purpose room (chapel or fellowship room, holding 125 seated).  The main entry for worship would be on the opposite side of the building from where it is now.

Also proposed was a new office building, which would be at the tip of a triangle if you had the base line be the line between the current main office and the minister’s study.  Hence: out in the parking lot, an obvious stopping or welcome place for someone coming during the week to visit the main office, minister or other staff.  This means all offices would be in the same building, and the classrooms in another building, and meeting rooms would be in the worship/fellowship building.

I did show them the “later” plans, which would include a new sanctuary building in the large area where some of the trees are now.  That area was intended for a sanctuary building back in the 1960s.  The hall we have been using for 50 years was built to be the fellowship hall, and it was assumed that a sanctuary would be built separately some time later.

I handed out the architect’s printed plans and the youth studied them together as they sat on their cushions on the floor and ate cookies.  They seemed interested, but not overawed by the prospects for our future. Yet they did not strain to see their parents waiting for them outside the room.  Ginny passed out registration forms for the Middle School UU Gathering (MUUGs) for the current weekend, to take place at a UU church high on a hill in Marin County.  I told those who are going to notice that sacred space, and maybe take a few pictures to show on a future Sunday.

I think that more middle schoolers here have studied the master plan than grown ups.  Some of them will no doubt be enjoying the refurbished, expanded and new spaces in coming decades, and maybe their kids will be eating cookies baked with love by a silver-haired volunteer from their church.