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February 13, 2014

What the Focus This?

Mindfulness Ain't for Multitaskers

I'm about to take you on a journey to the dense, chewy nucleus of the grape Tootsie Pop that is my head. You have been warned.

You see, my brain is very busy. It's a frickin' railway junction. I pride myself on my ability to juggle, organize, and accomplish, even in a crunch — no, especially in a crunch. "Show me a quiet mind," I always say, "and I'll show you a to-do list that's been criminally neglected." This morning I did Kegel exercises while writing my column lead while being power-flossed in the dentist's chair while feeling rather smug about it all.

But I had no right, it turns out, because multitasking is out and meditation is in. The Huffington Post declared 2014 The Year of Mindful Living, and Time magazine's recent cover story declared, "If distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness is the most logical response." Rupert Murdoch is meditating now. So are 50 Cent and Kourtney "it's possible I can't spell meditate" Kardashian. Meditation is the new kale; it's the balm for all that ails us.

So I try it. I go to a meditation workshop led by a legit, robed, shaved-headed, way-chill Buddhist monk named Kelsang Wangpo (total white guy in glasses, but still). While he talks, I clench my jaw and tap out the rhythm of his words with my fingers and wonder if he watches the Oscars and if he works out on a treadmill in his robe. I am manufacturing stimulation. Dear god, I need what he's selling.

He promises that meditation brings inner peace by allowing us to decide how we want to feel and what we want to focus on. I had assumed meditation was about letting go — but it turns out it's about control. I could get into this.

I wouldn't mind a little focus, a little stillness, a little savoring-the-momentness. I could stand to shush the noise and reverse the exhaustion of my own constant mental interruptions. Maybe this will even curb my headaches, my cravings for brownie batter, and my desire to roll tank-like over the top of slow-moving Smart cars in the fast lane.

The instructions are almost insultingly simple: Find a quietish place, get into a comfyish posture, and focus on your breath. That's it. You're supposed to notice any thoughts that arise without attaching or reacting to them — to watch them pass like clouds overhead.

But that's not the pace of things in my head. I am playing Whac-A-Mole with my thoughts. Or air hockey. And I am kicking ass, like a cartoon superhero fighting off bad guys and flinging them into a carcass pile beside him. Bam! Bring me some more. This is fun!

Only ... when they stop coming, I don't know what to do with myself. I hope that a dog will bark or a truck will rumble past. I am panicked, desperate for something to do. What does doing nothing look like? What fills the void in your head when the thoughts are gone? It's like the physics of a black hole, as frightening as it is confounding.

Discipline, I think, when I'm not supposed to be thinking. This takes discipline. If Buddha was so disciplined, wherefore the belly?

They say meditation is the practice of beginning again. So I begin again. And again. And again. I meditate with a book, with a CD, and with a bunch of strangers in a salt cave. I try silent meditation, guided meditation, even walking meditation. And I will keep trying, because now it's on my to-do list, and you know I don't shirk that shizz. For now, though, I'll admit that when it comes to mindfulness, I'm no Kourtney Kardashian.

But I wouldn't want to see her Kegels, and that's all I'll say.



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