On Faith: Studying the mind shows our true nature

"Now listen carefully, because I am only going to tell you this 10 times!"

So goes the joke about how difficult it can be to get someone's undivided attention.

It is common for people to multitask with emailing or texting, talk on the phone using headsets or listen to music on an iPod. Who has not experienced confusion when the person you are trying to relate to in "real time" turns out to be previously engaged with someone else electronically?

It is also common to be asked the same question several times because the person asking is simply not listening to the answer, no matter how many times or loudly it is repeated. Another aggravation is when instructions are given but are not followed, primarily because they were not listened to or read, and retained.

A pervasive inattentiveness to the tasks of daily life such as paying bills, picking up groceries, keeping appointments and returning calls — overall "flakiness" — also takes a toll. Some inattentiveness may be harmless, but the inability to pay attention when it is important to do so is increasingly a problem for many people.

According to a new report by the American Academy of Pediatrics, parents should avoid allowing children to watch any TV or computers until the age of two because the distraction delays their development.

The reason is not that they are adversely affected by the content (which they don't understand). The problem is that the movement, noise and color distract them from their primary task, which is to focus on their own play and on interaction with adults.

When the TV is left on and children are not actively viewing it, the "second-hand" TV still interferes with the children's concentration on their own play. It is easy to suspect that increased exposure to TV and computer screens may also contribute to the growing problems teens and adults are having with attention and concentration.

Attention, consciousness and meaningful engagement with reality are topics of interest for those involved in spirituality as well as psychology. While it may be helpful to prescribe medication for those with attention deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD), Zen addresses the more universal problem of "monkey mind" through meditation. Thoughts seem to swing wildly from branch to branch. One purpose of meditation is to study and tame the monkey, to train the mind to settle down and to focus.

Like learning to swim or play a musical instrument, calming the busy mind through meditation takes motivation, the development of skill, coaching and practice. It is a common mistake to think that distracting thoughts should be eliminated or repressed.

In awareness styles of meditation, thoughts are allowed to rise naturally, they are observed, but then attention is gently directed to the breath or back to some sensory aspect of the task at hand (for example, the smell of the lemon oil on a dust cloth). We change our relationship to thinking, allowing our larger consciousness to have the upper hand over the chattering thoughts.

At first, the private, internal world may seem more interesting than everyday activities. Daydreams about sex, vacations, success and love can seem more fulfilling than a business meeting or washing the car.

With time, we can distinguish between those healthy thoughts that make good use of our intelligence and obsessive, self-absorbed or dysfunctional thoughts that interfere with our ability to connect with the reality of this moment. As we wean ourselves from the hamster wheel of our thoughts and enter into life as it is, an appreciation and quiet satisfaction emerge.

The different meditation practices taught by religious traditions have a common denominator in that they are all efforts to retrain attention. They differ insofar as they use different strategies and techniques for accomplishing it. In elementary school, we were often told, "Put on your thinking caps."

This signaled us to stop daydreaming or talking, and to have our minds open and ready. It was a method of training attention. The ability to direct attention for long periods of time and to manage distractions, whether internal or external, is the key to concentration.

Another term for retraining attention is "mindfulness." It is learning how to be conscious and aware of the present moment, rather than distracted by our thoughts. We learn to be "mindful" or aware of the how the mind actually operates, rather than accepting the thought processes as an automatic default program.

As we carefully study the mind, we inevitably discover our true nature. By our attentiveness, we give love, care and respect to others.

THE REV. DEBORAH BARRETT is a Zen teacher, minister and counselor at the Zen Center of Orange County in Costa Mesa. She teaches comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

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