When You Care About Everything, It’s Hard to Think About Nothing

Dispatches from the war on distraction

The UCLA campus was deserted the day I arrived during spring break, its stillness doing little to combat the sense of dread I felt as I made my way to a large conference room. Inside were 10 people of all different ages. They were sitting quietly. I took a seat and waited for someone to speak, and when nobody did, I looked around and wondered what brought everyone here and whether I should be here instead of doing the million other things I’d rather be doing. Then I thought about those other things while scolding myself for thinking about them, because today was about the opposite of that. Today was about the present.

I was at The Mindful Awareness Research Center, founded in 2006— just a year before the present moment of which I speak—which was hosting a program called “A Day of Mindfulness” to promote mindfulness in daily life. I was the perfect candidate: I, who hummed like a Chihuahua and couldn’t stop her brain from ricocheting all over the place; I, who read while the radio was on and stopped each activity for the other every few minutes; I, who had lists of things I wanted to do and did each one of those things simultaneously.

I’d never felt this was a problem until I moved to California three years earlier, at the age of 29. If the Los Angeles ideal is blond, blue-eyed, and skinny, it also seemed to be hell-bent on being present in every single moment. It didn’t take long for me to realize this mindset was global. It just so happened that the mindfulness movement started spreading across the globe at the same time that I’d moved across the country. The world was engaged in what was literally called “a war on distraction”: there were mindfulness practices in kindergartens; business schools were incorporating meditation and mindfulness into activities like sending an email; couples therapists were touting mindfulness in their practices; there were 32 mindfulness apps for sale in the App Store; centers for mindfulness at universities were popping up everywhere; and peer-reviewed studies from the U.S., Europe, and Asia confirmed that this was a sound science. The world was finding positive outcomes. We’d found our medicine: It was inside us all along.

For the first time in my life, I felt apologetic for the ways in which I wasn’t attentive or present with every step and breath. I began to feel as if I weren’t living quite right, as if my busyness—the chaos around my to-do list, my ambition constantly exceeding that day’s capacity for activity—was somehow a moral failure. This wasn’t in my head. There seemed to be a resounding tsk of the tongue for my way of being, and I questioned whether what they said was true, that I wasn’t fully living my life.

Yes, said the supermarket stockperson, who suggested that I wake up to the moment as I innocently drank free coffee and checked my email. Yes, said the barista, who told me to focus after I’d zoned out in line and missed my turn. Of course, said my own yoga teacher, who wouldn’t entertain for a moment that I wasn’t unhappy doing things in my own buzzy way, that that very buzz was an indication that I couldn’t be alone with myself. The culture around me had become saturated by an ideal that everyone spoke about, but that I couldn’t seem to access. I saw a therapist and asked if maybe I hadn’t yet written the novel I wanted to write because my mind was too busy. “Absolutely,” she said, and then added that this was also why I couldn’t lose weight. Apparently, I was eating mindlessly. And so I set out on a journey—everything in the mindfulness realm is called a journey—that lasted until, well, today.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]I began to feel as if I weren’t living quite right, as if my busyness—the chaos around my to-do list, my ambition constantly exceeding that day’s capacity for activity —was somehow a moral failure.[/quote]

But more on today later. That day at UCLA in 2007, we spent our time doing 45-minute long activities like sitting. Just sitting. Walking around. Just sitting again, but outside this time. We ate lunch in silence. Everyone seemed to be doing so well. The goal was to think about nothing, but I was thinking about everything, particularly if this was actually a waste of a day, a day when thoughts were just being handed to me like gifts and I did nothing about them. Usually, I thrived on my thoughts. They’re what made me feel productive and alive and engaged in the world. They allowed me to take action, rather than be still.

But maybe I was wrong. None of the numerous studies that read like gospel when cited in the media said, “Do a million things at once and sleep the sleep of a day well spent!”

So I decided to make a change. I dove into what was an open-ended experiment to see if I could correct the things about me that were loose and scattered, and reap the touted benefits of mindfulness. It was a good time for me to try, because I was about to go through a pregnancy, and wanted to be a good parent, a “mindful” parent, as all the parenting books suggested. Besides, since this way of being was supposed to greatly improve my life, to make it feel more meaningful, and to even help me lose weight, who was I to argue with it?

If I’m profoundly uncomfortable with focus, I feel right at home with facts. And, at first, I delved into them. I wanted to understand more about the pervasive sense that we’re not just too distracted, but that we’re in danger of becoming increasingly so. Interestingly, this concern was raised long before the smartphone. In fact, Socrates chided his students for engaging in the “technology of writing,” which he believed would distract from the arts of debate and discussion. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, pious people were concerned that novels were “distracting from what everyone ought to be doing, which is reading the Bible,” according to Clive Thompson, author of Smarter Than You Think. Windows—the things in the wall, not the computer program—were also going to be a dangerous distraction, especially once glass became cheaper in the 19th century. Windows! We clutch our pearls and scream, “What will become of us!” every time something new comes along, and something new comes along, always.

There are more studies on the negative impact of distraction on our psyches than I could ever cite here—and even more on how simple mindfulness practices could improve lives exponentially. A 2014 study out of Italy suggests that mindfulness could help deter personality disorders. Another study, conducted in Nottingham and Indonesia, talks about mindfulness reducing aggression. There are now places you can go in major U.S. cities that are invitation-only meditation classes to “jumpstart your brain.” There’s a mindfulness magazine you can buy at Whole Foods that tells you why you’re a nervous wreck and features ads for stacks of rocks. There are apps for your computer that will stop you from impulsively Facebooking while you’re trying to get work done. There’s an unplug movement, in which people like me who have rejected traditional Sabbaths are supposed to embrace digital Sabbaths.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]Socrates chided his students for engaging in the “technology of writing,” which he believed would distract from the arts of debate and discussion.[/quote]

So for three years, I undertook this journey—and it was a journey—which involved policing my thoughts, reading best selling books authored by the movement’s most respected gurus, and regularly attending yoga class. It was a class in which the instructor told us she knew we were overwhelmed, that we were too distracted. She taught us Sanskrit words and Buddhist philosophy. She made knowing jokes about how stressed out we all were and said things about leaving our distractions at the door. Following the final om, she’d run for her cell phone, too, which was the only glimpse I ever saw from any of my guides that perhaps the same urges that affected me also affected them.

And I didn’t stop there. I enrolled in a meditation class that I forced my husband to attend with me. A woman told me my aura was busy and murky. She told my husband that he didn’t have an aura at all, which freaked him out, but seemed to be better, for some reason, than having a busy one. If you could watch me walk a timeline, you would see that from 2007 through 2008, I start to slow down. As the lessons from the meditation classes, yoga, and books seeped in, I began to move more unhurriedly and deliberately. Everyone who spoke to me got my full attention. I breathed through headaches and noticed that the nature of the pain changed when I didn’t avoid it. By 2009, there wasn’t a metaphorical rose I didn’t stop to smell. I took on a demeanor that was calmer and I challenged my thoughts when I found myself thinking I was too busy. I am here now. And now. And now. I ate and parented mindfully, and felt aware and present for just about every moment of that year.

And yet, at the same time, I became more bored and less productive—flatter, less alive. My regimen of behavior modification had made me more present, but I wasn’t happy. I’d become less adaptive. I couldn’t handle multitasking, which is often necessary in daily life, and minor interruptions to my activities caused me agitation. (“Please, Claude,” I said to my husband when he’d wander into the living room while I was doing a puzzle with our son. “Don’t interrupt us.”) With all this mindfulness came a sense that even if I was more present in the moment, I was missing out on so much more; that I was wasting my life by focusing inward rather than acting outward.

And so I harbored a secret, a thought that I hid like an illicit lover. When I cheated on mindfulness—when I let my thoughts swirl in the neurotic way they used to—a question emerged that no amount of focus could push away: Was the goal of my life to just be aware of the present moment and how my body felt and how my breathing kept up? Didn’t this seem a bit, well, insular? Being less distracted felt distracting, in the sense that it distracted me from engaging in the things that were meaningful to me. Now that I’d done all this work, I wondered, had I become more present with my thoughts, but less present in the world at large? More self-absorbed? Had I become a narcissist? Had I lost my sense of the big picture?

The truth was, I didn’t like who I was anymore, and I wanted out. I craved my old self. But how did I get her back? Whenever I shared this wish with those who practiced mindfulness, or even those who aspired to it—which is to say, everybody I knew—the reaction was one of incomprehension and pity. Something must be wrong with me, their expressions seemed to say. And maybe there was. What kind of person doesn’t want quiet? What kind of person doesn’t want inner peace?

In 2010, opportunity struck: My husband was laid off in the post-housing crisis depression, and we decided it was time I went back to work. I was pregnant with my second child by then, and not wanting to be tethered to an office, so afraid was I that I’d miss my children’s “present,” I became a freelance writer.

My husband’s unemployment gave me license—an excuse, if I’m being honest—to return to my natural equilibrium. It turns out that you’re allowed to be more scattered as a working mother with an unemployed husband. People just sort of feel bad for you and forgive you for refreshing the feeds on your phone at a kid’s birthday party. But instead of feeling burdened, I was actually elated. I wanted talking, and reading, and data. I was able to return, slowly, but certainly, to a version of who I was before: scattered, searching my brain for the thing that I was about to say, multiple screens up on a computer, not done ordering new sweatpants from Lands’ End before returning to the banking screen that was about to log me out, then going to a story I was not yet finished writing. It was messy, but it felt like jumping into a refreshing pool after years in a sauna.

Giddy with freedom, I couldn’t help but notice certain paradoxes. There were, for instance, the endless links to pictures and animated GIFs on my social media that solemnly warned about the dangers of distraction. In one of my favorites, labeled “If this video doesn’t convince you to put down your phone, nothing will,” a spoken word poet gravely looks out onto the ocean and says, “Call me crazy, but I imagine a world in which we smile when we have low batteries, because that brings us one step closer to humanity.”

But it was my batteries, I believed—both literal and metaphoric—that brought me closer to humanity, to connection rather than disconnection. And so, while I’d just spent the past four years using my life circumstances to now avoid engaging in my prior mindfulness practices, I also felt pressure to continue to pretend to aspire to them. I pretended to be like everyone else, cheering its benefits and claiming to wish to be more still. But on New Year’s Day 2014, something in me cracked. Somebody at brunch asked me what my New Year’s resolution was. I said it was to publish more now that both kids were in school. The other people’s resolutions were various versions of “to slow down.” They received nods of amen, whereas I received the smile I knew so well by now—the look that meant I just didn’t get what life is all about. Anger boiled up inside me. I didn’t want to slow down. I wanted to do lots of things. I didn’t even care about losing weight anymore, having finally become comfortable with my body. I had been less mindful, but I was happier this way. And I no longer believed that my way was wrong and everybody else’s was right.

I didn’t want to spend my precious time doing yoga, or meditating, or being hyper-aware of the taste of food in my mouth while eating. I wanted to tell my kids to “Cut it out!” instead of breathing and talking through every little thing in a mindful way. Above all, I wasn’t interested in being perpetually present when there were so many more engaging places to be. I liked my twitchy mind, a mind that felt that something was wrong with a culture that seemed so focused on the vices of distraction without allowing much space for its possible virtues.

A few weeks later, I got on the phone with Edward Hallowell, a psychiatrist and the author of Driven to Distraction, along with more than a dozen other books on topics ranging from attention deficit disorder to dealing with worry and managing excessive busyness.

I wondered if he might know of any research on the positive effects of living the way I did. Instead of giving me tips on doing away with distraction, he explained a common misconception. The thing is, he said, you can’t actually divide attention. There’s no such thing.

“Being distracted simply means shifting your focus,” he said. “When people say they’re multitasking, what they’re doing is shifting focus from one topic to another in rapid succession.” I knew what he meant: When I work, I have the screens of all the different stories I’m working on up at once—up to four or five sometimes—and I toggle between them the minute I become stuck on one. Suddenly, I am unstuck on the other.

Of course, it’s harder to quantify the benefits of being a little scattered. What Hallowell called “the positives” often aren’t talked about. But they are there. “You think outside the box. You’re an inventor, a pioneer and explorer, the kind of people who colonized this country, came over in the waves of immigration. It’s the disruptors. The divergent thinkers. You know, the people who come up with something new without intending to.”

Something new, like the theory that maybe the more distracted people add a kind of value to the world in a way those sitting still can’t.

At the end of 2014, seven years after my mindfulness class at UCLA, I moved back to the East Coast. Recently, for nostalgia’s sake, I stopped by NYU, where I had been an undergraduate. The Catholic Center there has been replaced by a building that houses all the different religious centers, and now also features a Center for Mindful Awareness. On the fourth floor of this building is a room called the Silent Meditation Room. It is candlelit and dotted with stacks of rocks.

As I peered into the meditation room at NYU, I thought about how many times I watched people send loving thoughts around the world. Perhaps all this hyper awareness cultivates global kindness, eventually, but you know what else cultivates global kindness? Getting out of your head and up from your meditation mat and dealing with the discomfort of living in this world—trying your hardest to live a good life that is sloppy and sometimes uncomfortable. How about taking that time focusing inward and sitting still to focus outward and do something useful, like going out and helping those who need it, those who don’t even have a place to sit, still or not. I think sometimes about the end of my life, about how people say that what will matter is not how much time you spent at an office, but how much time you spent with your loved ones. But I think the real question will be: How well did you use the time you had? There are some lost years in there, the ones where I moved at such a slow pace and got so little done and participated so little in the world outside of those who have the luxury to yoga-fy and meditate and manage their thoughts that I am ashamed.

[quote position="left" is_quote="true"]But it was my batteries, I believed—both literal and metaphoric— that brought me closer to humanity, to connection rather than disconnection.[/quote]

If the goal of mindfulness practice is to help one cope with the perceived pressures of life, it may be effective for some. But if another goal is to make the world a better place, perhaps that time could be better used by actually doing something, rather than not doing anything. This is all we have, this one life, and I choose to engage. For me, mindfulness is a way of being alone, of disengaging, no matter how its message is spun. It’s simple metaphysics. You simply can’t be seated with your eyes closed, pondering nothing, and simultaneously be participating in the world—this inherently busy and chaotic place of seven billion people.

I left NYU and headed home, where I got out party bags for my son’s upcoming seventh birthday party and mindlessly filled them as I talked with a friend. In the back of my mind, the characters for that novel I haven't yet written danced around, while ideas for future projects swirled in and out until the bags were done. On the couch, I saw the toiletries that had been donated to my synagogue, which I was responsible for separating into categories. As I put shampoo with shampoo and toothbrush with toothbrush, I thought of every sunset that awed me and every walk on the beach I’ve enjoyed. I thought of every Adirondack chair I’ve ever sat on, every time I’ve gazed upon a still lake or up at a star. I thought of playing paddy cake with my children, and I thought of the linguine and clam sauce my husband and I had on our first date. I thought of those things and many, many more. And no matter where my mind wandered, no matter how far it traveled, if you’d asked me right then and there when I’ve ever felt more present in my whole life, I’m not sure I could tell you.