Oct 18 2011

{Day 18} Cultivating a Relationship with Your Home, Part 2

I’ve always been a “I’ll do it in the morning” kind of person. Dishes stayed in the sink and on the counter until I shuffled out into the morning dark to put on water for tea. While the water boiled and the tea steeped, I’d clean up from the day before and then take my tea in for some quiet moments of reflection and prayer.

One evening, I cleaned up before I went to bed, not really thinking too much about it.

The next morning I walked into a delightfully clean and orderly kitchen–the counter, bare and ready for possibility. Muffins? Bread? Or simply time to wander out and look at the sunrise while my tea bag soaked.

I smiled that morning–and while I’m more of a morning person than an evening, smiling is usually beyond my capacity before tea. The clear counter made the day feel spacious and ready for creativity (though my sleepy brain was not thinking about it so eloquently at the time).  And, the rest of the day did go better, and from that point on, I began to practice life as a “I’ll do it now, for the joy of later” kind of person.

Do I always keep my counters clear now? No. But I know that when I do, that same early morning joy awaits me.

This is one of the ways contemplative living–paying attention to the present moment–can lead to little changes without much drama. If you take the time to notice how something subtly changes your internal mood or thoughts positively, this energy can be used. It’s a much better way for creating a new habit than teeth-clenched willpower. In fact, Thomas Aquinas, a major medieval theologian, was convinced that the best way to learn how to live virtuously was through experiencing the delight that was the consequence of the virtuous action, not guilt from, or punishment for, wrong-doing.

Cleaning a counter isn’t a virtue, but the underlying motivation may have some similarities. After I was awake enough to reflect on my experience of joy that morning, I realized that I’d always cleaned my counters because I thought I should. This was the first time I made a clear connection between the action and its joy-full consequence.

We’ll delve into this more next week as we consider challenges to contemplative attention, ways we can purposely distract ourselves from the joy-full consequences of paying attention to the present moment. But for now, let’s return to the home.

Considering our homes an an important companion in our family’s life may help create new awareness in two ways. First, it helps in dealing with the space as it is, rather than as you wish it would be, and second, it underscores the reality that your daily living space has an impact on your thoughts and mood, and the climate of your family life. This leads to both flexibility and initiative–flexibility to make compromises for where the space falls short, and initiative to make changes in how you interact with the space for the joy of later.

If you walked around your home and took some notes in the Day 17 practice, consider the areas that cause an energy drain. Maybe every time you go into your bathroom, you feel tired. Maybe the dining room is a place of arguments and tension. Maybe the bedroom doesn’t invite you to rest. Or maybe the closet feels like it’s hiding the weight of everything on your to-do list.

Ok. Breathe.

One little change could transform how you and your family live the rest of the day, and over time, daily joy accumulates.

Practice: Pick one space, or a part of one space, that you interact with daily and set your clock to a pomodoro (25 minutes). Single-task your attention as much as possible–though listening to some favorite music might be helpful.

Work with the objects in the space. Move them around, neaten them up, sort them. Sometimes, taking everything out and cleaning is enough to get the energy moving. As you work with the space, imagine what would give you joy in that space. Follow your joy, for the joy of later. It may be something simple, like a clean counter, or organizing one shelf of a linen closet.

Get the munchkins involved–getting to set the pomodoro clock can be part of the fun.

If you are feeling energized, do another pomodoro after a 5 minute break (and be sure to take the break!)

Artwork by Carl Holsoe

Oct 13 2011

{Day 13} You are an artist

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. –Annie Dillard

We are each artists of the lives we’ve been given.

Each morning we wake to a new set of moments that are crafted from our choices and commitments, loves and disappointments, joys and pain.

But they still have possibility.

With the help of the Holy Spirit, we can be artists of the our days. Slow down. Attend to the present moment. Focus on one task or activity at a time, as much as possible.

One of the most delightful aspects of my job with theology students was hosting Sabbath Space. Each Wednesday and Thursday, students come to a stain-glass and candle-lit chapel to feast on crayons, colored pencils, coloring sheets, and anything else I can find to tempt them to stop, take a risk and play for a moment.

Most of my students were right-brain starved on their academic diet of dense theological and philosophical texts, weary from wrestling with justice issues, or just tired from the frenetic pace of life. They come in, took a deep breath as they sat down at the craft table, and for 5 minutes or 3 hours, they experienced the eye of the storm. The art product was secondary–it was the moments of attention that they paid to the project at hand, choosing medium, colors, getting their hands and hearts involved, that gave rest.

Rest was also found through the moments of attention that others at the table extended to each other, “How are you? How are classes? What a beautiful color choice!” Some students started talking as they walked in, grabbing a blank piece of paper and random pencil, shapes and designs soon punctuating their narrative.

Something beautiful happened in Sabbath Space, but most who participated would not call themselves artists. Rather than focusing on production, I saw students gingerly walk or wildly run into their creative hearts, finding healing to take back into the rest of life.

Fittingly, the large, beautifully carved table used for creating and conversing in Sabbath Space was also used for a weekly community feast of the Lord’s Supper. Different gatherings, but both means of grace, renewal, and communion.

Practice: You are an artist and the moments, activities and relationships of today are your medium. What can you and the Holy Spirit create?  Get some crayons out, a piece of paper, and spend a pomodoro (25 minutes) coloring. I guarantee you will smile, especially if you include your favorite young person.

Oct 12 2011

{Day 12} Single-Tasking, Pt 3

Ferry Flyer by SLF

Up to this point in the series, I’ve asked you to simply pay attention to the present moment.

Today I’d like to invite you to try a technique called Pomodoro.

As I mentioned in the last post, once we get into a habit of task surfing, it becomes more difficult to shift our brains into focus.

Attention is not an on/off switch. It’s more like a muscle and to keep it focused on one thing requires exercise. It also gets tired of concentrating and needs regular breaks.

The Pomodoro Practice:

  1. Choose one task on your to-do list, or choose one activity.
  2. Unless it is reading and answering email, close your email.  Close all your windows on your computer that you don’t need for the task. Turn off the TV and commercial or talk radio (though music that will help you do the task is okay). Let the phone go to voicemail. Disable any computer or phone notifications that will interrupt–these begin the shift of attention away from one task to another. Basically, turn off or disable any technology which would alert you to other tasks.
  3. Set your phone, watch, or stove timer for 25 minutes.
  4. Do the activity for 25 minutes without shifting to any other task.
  5. At the end of the 25 minutes, stand up and stretch. Then decide if you will continue on that task for another 25 minutes, or shift to something else. Whatever you decide, do another 25 minute session on a task or activity.

Of course, certain jobs and responsibilities make removing all interruptions difficult, if not impossible.

If the present moment offers you an invitation to attend to something or someone else, then decide if you will shift attention.

If you do shift, go fully into paying attention to the new situation, rather than trying to split attention. (As an example, try not to work on the computer and have a conversation at the same time.)

Stop one task in order to fully pay attention to the next.

The key is to finding the balance between focusing and letting the present moment simply be what it is, with its unpredictability.

31 Days

Oct 11 2011

{Day 11} Single-Tasking vs Task Surfing, Pt 2


“Undertake all your affairs with a calm mind and try to dispatch them in order one after the other. If you make an effort to do them all at once or without order, your spirits will be so overcharged and depressed that they will likely sink under the burden without effecting anything.” –Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, 17th century

Francis de Sales was an astute observer of human nature and a well-respected spiritual director in the 17th century. He believed that well-being lies in practicing focused attention on one task at a time, what is now being called single-tasking.  It is only recently that neuroscience has provided solid support for his observations.

The fun and wonder of having real-time arrival for my buses and GPS mapping in the palm of my hand, constant and instantaneous communication all over the world, a social network with hundreds of connections, and an awesome amount of information at my fingertips, comes the hard reality:

Without intentionally setting some boundaries, we can practice ourselves into distraction.

If you have not read Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School, I highly recommend it, especially to those charged with educating young people. Drawing together the most recent studies on the brain, John Medina, a faculty member at the University of Washington and Seattle Pacific University, offers clear arguments for why multi-tasking is simply bad for the brain.

The reality: our brains fake multi-tasking.

What looks like multi-tasking, or what I call task surfing, is simply rapid shifts between tasks that ultimately burdens our short-term memory. It’s not unlike having multiple windows open on a computer. As with a computer, our short-term memory can only hold so much, and over time, multi-tasking can begin to degrade our short-term memory capacity. Our brains simply burn out.

This is difficult news in a society that values people who (seem to be able to)  do many things at once.

Here’s how the brain handles a task:

  1. My brain shifts attention to the task at hand, say, to write this blog post.
  2. With the initial shift of attention, my brain runs a search for neurons capable of working on the blog post, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This takes several tenths of a second to complete. Right now my neurons are happily humming along as I think and type and ponder some more.
  3. But, oh, I haven’t checked my email in a while. So I decide to shift my attention. My brain disengages from writing on the blog, drops it into short-term memory, and clicks over to email.
  4. My brain begins a search for email-reading neurons, and then rouses those neurons to start working. This shift takes time to complete. The blog-post writing neurons shut down.

Every time we shift our attention, this process must be completed step by step. Every time.

This is why driving and talking on a cell phone, or even reaching for a something, is so dangerous. The brain cannot perform two high level cognitive functions simultaneously–there has to be a shift of attention.

A person on a cell phone while driving has a reaction time similar to someone driving while intoxicated.

Medina argues that multi-tasking also leads to a task taking 50% longer and often with 50% more mistakes.

Now, I would like to distinguish between that heightened awareness and flow that happens when we are focused on an activity. In this case, there may be lots of information being processed at once, such as when I’m out taking photos–my senses are expanded wide to catch the next shot. While there would be some shifting of attention, the overall focus is on the activity of taking photos, rather than repeated interruptions to focus on something completely different.


Task surfing makes me feel like I’m accomplishing a lot, but in truth,  I don’t accomplish all that much, and the day becomes a blur, lost in the foggy in-between of attention shifting.

Constant task surfing drains energy. It affects memory, especially retention of information gained during a surfing period. And, even more, there isn’t much lasting delight in doing the tasks.

Task surfing may give a surge of short-term pleasure as the brain experiences new information, psychological validation, or relief from boredom, but it doesn’t give the heart long enough to engage and feel lasting enjoyment.

To top it off, I have found that my overall ability to focus greatly diminishes when I’ve fed my brain a steady diet of rapid distractions. It actually becomes more difficult to focus when I want to.

Sometimes repeated shifting from task to task is necessary, such as when caring for young children, or fulfilling other responsibilities which demand splitting attention among many activities. The key is becoming aware of when we are shifting because it is necessary, and when we are task surfing.

Practice: Pay attention today to when you shift your attention from task to task, why your shift it, and how you feel.

31 Days

This is part of an on-going October series on Contemplative Living. Due to a blog meltdown, I am slowly catching up on posts from the past two days. If you would like to read it from the beginning, the first day is here.

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