There’s this charming story, about a Zen student and his teacher, trying to impart the lesson of mindfulness. “When drinking tea,” the teacher told his student, “just drink tea.”
How often do you just drink tea?
Such a beautifully simple idea. Be Here Now. Focus. Breathe. So quaint… and yet, so hopelessly impossible. At the moment, I have not less than seven other windows open on my computer. Among them: two email accounts, Facebook, Twitter. My cell phone is to my right; my land line receiver to my left. I have a load of laundry in the washing machine, and am trying to determine what to have for dinner as I write this.
Oh, I’m also drinking tea.
I know I’m not the exception. We spend our days assaulted by information, stimulation, texts, tweets, pings, and rings. So I listened with special interest when I came across this edition of NPR’s On Point. Host Tom Ashbrook summarizes the show thus:
Americans love to be horrified by multitasking. Well, some Americans. For many younger Americans, it’s just life. Especially “media multitasking.” Phoning, texting, reading, tweeting, with a movie on the laptop, a video chat in the corner, IM on the side. And–God forbid–maybe driving, too.
A new study out of Stanford seems to confirm the worst fears about multitasking–that in the midst of the “multi,” nothing gets done well. This hour, we’ll talk with an author of that study–and with two twenty-somethings who say it’s just life.
While the debate over how much we’re able to do well at once is an interesting one–because, at least in part, it hits all of us where we live–it’s also kind of moot. To varying degrees, the multitasking is a given. And, regardless of how much is actually a given, the assumption is that, in life, multitasking is as certain as death and taxes. (See: any media portrayal of life in the modern world.)
In a way, it all reminds me of that evil old ad, the one that celebrated the success of the women’s movement by singing that we can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan. (Don’t touch that dial: point is coming, soon.) Well, yes. We can. But between all that’s required to bring it home and fry it up, do we ever get a second to stop and think? Or, more to the point, to stop and feel: are we enjoying bringing it home? Are we enjoying frying it up? Do we have enough psychic space available to even notice how it smells as it’s cookin’, let alone how it tastes?
That sent my mind back to spinning on all the multitasking we do a little bit more. Consider: For all the lip service we pay to the importance of finding our passion, with our attention splintered among all the things crying out for it, how do we even know if we’re actually enjoying something? And might this fractured consciousness have a little something to do with why we’re so damn angsty in the face of big life decisions? It’s hard enough to make a truly informed decision. But how can we feel adequately informed if we can’t focus, if we can’t just drink the tea?
Oh, and that tea? The end of the story might make you feel a little bit better. One day, that Zen student whose teacher told him to just drink tea discovered his teacher, drinking tea and reading the paper. When confronted, the teacher said, “When drinking tea and reading the paper, just drink tea and read the paper!”