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Monday, June 4, 2012

Monday Morning Check In: Be Present


I was born in the mid-1950s, and it seems to me that during my entire lifetime I have heard folks talk about newfangled ways to make things easier, more efficient, more convenient, and faster. In my childhood, television made a mass-market appearance, and along with it came TV dinners. Our housecleaning evolved to electric vacuum cleaners from push brooms and sweepers. Our old Royal Underwood typewriter faced off with the electric typewriter when I took my Clerk-Typist I civil service exam for a summer job in high school. Gadgets and appliances filled up empty spaces in our cabinets and closets, and then the home computer hit the market (my first computer was an Apple IIe back in the early 1980s).

As the computer insinuated itself into our homes and our lifestyles, we added new words to our verbal repertoire. “Multi-tasking” made its appearance around 1966 as a computer term to refer to the “concurrent performance of several jobs by a computer.” (Merriam-Webster). Today it also refers to the performance of multiple tasks at one time by a human. This is where I think we now find ourselves with a problem: we no longer are able to “be present.”

What does it mean to be present? To me being present means being involved in the “now.” It means being completely focused on what is happening at the moment. When I am present, I am thinking about what I am doing. I am not thinking of things other than the task before me. I am completely focused, involved, and engaged in what I am doing. I am not distracted by other things that vie for my attention. I am doing one thing at a time and paying attention to what I am doing in that moment.

My refrigerator magnet
Why does it matter that we are present? The human mind does not multi-task as well as a computer. For instance, I once read about a technique to calm the mind: think about two things at the same time. For example, if you were to think about “purple tree” and “orange grapefruit,” you would notice that your mind quieted. It did not awaken and shift into a higher gear. Despite protests to the contrary, most of us would find that we accomplish more things with better quality when we focus on one thing at a time. Yes, it saddens me to publicly acknowledge that I am less efficient when I attempt to do two (or three or four) things at the same time.

I discovered this phenomenon during my law practice days. I found that some days I left the office feeling very satisfied with the work I had accomplished. Other days, my “point one (.1)” days, left me completely enervated. Point one refers to the practice in law of recording work time in increments of 6 minutes or .1 of an hour. A point one day was a day that I accomplished many little things, each lasting about .1 of an hour. A point one day meant that I frequently switched from one task or file or client to another every six minutes, and I would be exhausted at the end of such a day – physically and mentally.

As a teacher, I spend a great deal of my teaching time developing my students’ abilities to focus and concentrate. I myself had to learn this skill in my first semester of college. My university teacher, Helen Kwalwasser (Temple University) correctly identified that I lacked the ability to concentrate. I had been told that I needed to practice many hours per day, and I had indeed put in many hours of practice during my high school years. However, I did not practice in the moment. Instead of building up my ability to concentrate, I developed the ability to play without focus and attention. Helen broke me of this habit within one week by insisting that my practice sessions be limited to 20 minutes at the most. I was permitted to practice as many times as I wanted during the day, but I was not allowed to practice beyond 20 minutes at a time.

As a teacher, it matters that my students are present when they learn or practice, because my students are more efficient in their efforts. They do not waste time. They practice while they are aware of what they are doing, and so they are engaged and listening. They practice mindfully and therefore accomplish more in a shorter amount of time than they did when they practiced while unfocused or distracted.

How do we develop the ability to be in the present? There are many resources on the Internet that suggest ways to improve this area. One of my favorite articles was written by Leo Babauta (for article, click here:  Being Present - Zen Habits). I have found three things that work in my life: running (or exercise), writing, and raising dogs.

I have run several marathons and half marathons, and two ultra marathons (50K or 31 miles). I have also written many term papers and completed several other large writing projects. I have found a direct relationship between the concentration involved in both areas. When running a long distance, I learned how to focus my mind on the task before me (such as an entire day of running). When writing a large project, I focused my mind in the same way.

I raise miniature long-haired dachshunds, and I currently have a pack of 6 adult dogs, 1 youth dog, and 3 puppies that need to move on to new homes (contact me if you are interested in a puppy born the night of our Carnegie Hall debut 3/22/12). Dogs live in the moment. They do not fret over what they did not accomplish yesterday or what embarrassing mistake they made in the past. They are not concerned about what the future holds. They live here and now, and they are great reminders to us of the value of living in the present.

I have noticed that many families and parents have lost touch with the ability to be present in the moment. Perhaps cell phones are one of the culprits as to why we are increasingly distracted from our present moments. I have turned off my phone’s ring tone. I hear the phone vibrate when someone calls, but I do not hear the phone indicate when new email or text messages arrive. Still, my phone sends me notifications and alerts, and my screen lights up. I have even noticed that the phone screen diverts my students’ attention.

As a teacher, I know the value to the student of a parent who pays attention to the student during the lesson. Many times a student will turn around during a lesson to see if the parent is watching. One group class, one of my young pre-twinklers turned to look at her dad and his new girlfriend, and unfortunately, both adults were completely engrossed in their smart phones. Another mother sometimes spends the entire lesson making phone calls.

These are egregious examples of parents who are not showing interest in their child’s lessons. Not all cases are this severe. We fall prey to the competing distractions that attack us from every direction today. We can all use a reminder about paying attention.

Being in the present is a skill and ability that we need to nurture in ourselves and our children and students. I hope that parents strengthen this ability of being present so that their children reap the benefit of the parent’s full attention. I hope that students develop the ability of being present and focused so that they learn and accomplish more in an efficient way while practicing or in lessons. I hope that teachers learn how to be present so that they can role model this powerful skill and ability for their students and their parents.

Have a great week! Be present!

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