If you haven’t tried mindfulness meditation you might be wondering what the big deal is. The teacher says wash the dishes. Just wash the dishes. How hard can that be?
The problem is, I loathe having to wash dishes. It’s not the dirty dinnerware per se that I dislike. It’s what happens in my mind while I’m cleaning it. Mere microseconds after I set the intention to pay attention to the feel of soapy water on my skin, my ruminative mind kicks into gear and I start worrying about such things as looming deadlines, the emotional welfare of my children, or climate change – none of which I can do anything about while I’m scrubbing posts and pans.
I’m not alone in having trouble paying attention in this way. A study which sampled more than 2,000 people as they went about their day found that 47 percent of the time, participants were not focused on their task at hand and that when their minds wandered, they were also generally less happy.
It strikes me as rather bizarre that while the adult population is struggling to pay attention half of the time, my one-year-old-son, Isaac (who we call Izzy) is not.
Izzy loves washing dishes; or least pretending to. He pulls a stool up to the kitchen sink and happily spends an hour absorbed in the joy of suds and soap. Enraptured in the endeavour, Izzy has no worrisome thoughts about why his brother knocked over his lego tower or who he’ll play with tomorrow.
So what does Izzy know that I don’t? Why is it so easy for a one-year-old to live in “the moment?”
To answer this, I turned to science and after three days diving into the academic literature on thinking, conscious awareness and human development, I still don’t really know. One surprising thing I have discovered though is that despite the suggestive titles of best-selling books written by spiritual gurus such as Ram Dass (Be Here, Now) and Eckhart Tolle (The Power of Now), it turns out “the present moment” doesn’t really exist, at least not inside our heads anyway. In fact, scientists are learning “living in the moment” is probably impossible thanks to the hard-wired ways our brains process thinking and decision-making. Because of something called the “flash lag effect,” our consciousness lags 80 milliseconds behind actual events. Put simply, by the time you’re consciously aware of it, the present is already in the past.
Another problem that I’m encountering is defining exactly what moment I’m supposed to be aware of while I’m scouring saucepans. In current popular meditation culture, this instruction tends to refer to directing attention to our breathing, or to the sounds around us, or to the sensations in our body. But the truth is, in any given moment there are endless possible occurrences to pay attention to. In fact, the thoughts in my head (even if they are about what happened during my day, or planning for the one that lies ahead) are technically also happening in “the moment.”
Speaking of the distracting thoughts in my head, another fascinating fact which is starting to find a way out of the halls of academia and into the mainstream conversation is the idea that mankind’s ability to engage in "mental time travel” may be the very thing that distinguishes us from other animals. It’s our ability to remember the past and to anticipate the future that has allowed us to plan cities, seed crops and invest in bitcoin.
So, although studies with titles such as “A wandering mind is an unhappy mind” tend to give “thinking” a bad reputation (and certainly, as I wrote in my piece The Mindful Way Through Insomnia, rumination can cause a world of pain), not all mental time travel is bad for us. Indeed, taking mental time-out has been shown to help our brain practice what it has recently learned and to facilitate creative insights. I often discover the solution to an unsolved problem precisely when I allow my attention to wander away from it and the evidence shows that’s not uncommon.
I am about to go deeper into all this on my meditation retreat, but from what I can tell (and I’m still very very much a beginner) it’s not so much that my teacher wants me to find the impossible “present moment” while I’m scraping uneaten leftovers into the compost, but rather, to pay attention to whatever it is that I am experiencing instead of wishing it to be something else. So far, the task has shone a spotlight on my tendency to get caught up in habitual thinking patterns that serve no useful function. I’ve noticed that I’m often thinking about the exact same thing I thought about the previous night and the night before that, and nothing has changed in the meantime. I suspect that seeing this glimpse into my own internal processing was exactly what my meditation teacher intended when he set the homework assignment.
As for the super powers of the other mindfulness master in my life, it turns out that young kids can’t imagine future scenes until they’ve gained the ability to recall personal experiences, typically somewhere between the ages of three and five, which may explain why one-year-old Izzy experiences such joyful fascination while swiping, swishing and splattering bubbles at the kitchen sink. He doesn’t know how to ruminate, even if he wanted to.
I feel sad at the thought that a time will likely come when Izzy’s brain is more developed and he will no longer easily slip into bliss at the kitchen sink. I guess in many ways that’s why I’m heading off on my retreat. I figure, if I can work out how to find it once again, maybe I’ll be able to show him if he forgets.