Monday, January 9, 2012

ADD? Just Maybe

So aren't we all just a little ADD (Attention Deficit Disordered)? Don't we all get distracted a little too easily and too often?

Let's just have a quick look at what the big, burgundy book (aka, the psychiatric, diagnostic manual, the DSM-IV, in polite professional company) has to say:

1. fails to pay close attention to details.
2. has difficulty sustaining attention in tasks.
3. doesn't seem to listen when spoken to.
4. doesn't follow thru' on instructions / fails to finish chores.
5. has difficulty organizing activities.
6. avoids or is reluctant to undertake tasks that require sustained effort.
7. often loses things necessary for tasks or activities.
8. is easily distracted by extraneous stimuli.
9. is often forgetful in daily activities.

Now, according to the Book, six or more of the above and you make the cut -- as it were. Let me just think back (if I could only remember) to my last meditation session. Planned a workshop for tomorrow, thought about when the timer was going to sound, ignored the dog barking (then was irritated by the dog barking), reminded self to remind self to take back the soup pot before I went to pick up granola at the Slow Food Market -- now was it this week they move to, oh, where was that new location . . . Hmm. Oh yeah -- breathe! I just may qualify!

The aforementioned workshop turns out to be a short chat about the benefits of a mindfulness practice with a group of teachers on their first day back after Christmas (is that OK to say?) break. As I began tossing around educator-relevant takes on my theme, a few things floated up during this morning's sit (in between returning to the breath, of course). Likely they're mostly new to the practice. So I needed a framework to orient my audience to this vast, varied, and largely misunderstood body of material. Glimmers of early creative writing tuition began to coalesce: Who, what, where, when, and why -- the critical elements of any good story.

What is mindfulness? Well my old standby, Jon Kabat-Zinn says it most succinctly: Paying attention, in a particular way, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Almost sounds like the flip side, the polar opposite of the 'accident waiting to happen' (aka, our ADD-afflicted candidate; namely, ME). To dissect Jon's definition a bit, the paying attention references the breath, the home base of most mindfulness practices. Something that's always with us, always available. All we need do is attend to it, notice it.

In a particular way: through a regular, mindfulness practice. The cultivation of the 'meditative habit' -- building in, as part of our daily routine, the room to sit quietly with the sole purpose of holding a focus -- and, as will happen time after time after time, gently ushering ourselves back to that focus once we wandered away. Each time we're distracted by some 'extraneous stimulus' (lest we forget number 8), noticing, observing that we've slipped away into some historic regret or some future fret, heard the dog bark, relived the emotional encounter with the 'goof tailgating us', felt the twinge in the lower back; and returning to our anchor, the breath. On purpose refers to the intention that we bring to a practice. Developing, enhancing our awareness of just how 'automatically' we typically go through our day -- reacting rather than choosing. Learning to relegate the automatic pilot to Air Canada and taking explicit hold of the controls. More the purposeful traveller, less the 'accidental tourist'.

And finally, in the present moment, without judgment. How much of our time is spent 'somewhere else' than where we are right now. And how eager we are to evaluate every experience, every encounter, to apply value label (good / bad, desirable / repugnant, appropriate / unsuitable).

Where, When. Largely your choice. In a quiet room, waiting at a traffic light, pulling weeds, doing the dishes; as a way to start your day or a contemplative period at the end of day's 'sentence'. In a group (lovely energy) or enjoying the solitude of time to oneself. No one right way, time, or place!

How (that would be the acronymic form of Who -- a little creative license). In a more formal practice, adopting a relaxed and alert posture; sitting on a straight-backed chair, a zafu (don't you just love that word: aka, a meditation cushion), cross-legged in a full lotus (long gone for this ADD soul!) Head, neck, back aligned to open the chest and facilitate breathing. Generally eyes closed (just less 'distracting'), adopting a mindset of acceptance and allowing of whatever is going on around us and in us -- physical sensation, emotional content, thoughts -- and taking our attention to the breath and where we most notice it.

And then the Why. The (hopelessly) glib response is 'just because'. One often begins with a 'reason for meditating' -- stress, poor sleep, mood or anxiety issues, nagging or chronic pain, a scattered mind, addiction -- but soon discovers that mindfulness is less a 'tool' and more a process, a habit. Meditating with a purpose, an identified end in mind is rather like exercising only to lose weight. Only when the means (sitting regularly) becomes the end, does the end become accessible -- more a side effect, a consequence of the practice than a goal to be attained.

But I've gotten off track -- distracted, one might say. It occurred to me, as I sat this morning, that there just might be some benefits to the charges of the teachers with whom I was going to be chatting. That just maybe, with ADD being identified with alarming frequency (not to mention the plethora of other challenging childhood issues in need of addressing before one can actually get down to the business of teaching -- the bullying, the poor self-esteem, the flagging self-discipline, the stress of being a child, to name a few), there may be some benefit in having 'my students' do what they are naturally trained to do: teach. No better way to develop one's own skill set than by passing the knowledge along. 'Learning by doing' an old mentor of mine used to call it -- and doing is what mindfulness is all about!

At risk of providing yet another catalogue, the benefits of mindfulness in a young population (as they are for adults as well) are legion:

- Physical relaxation
- Improved concentration
- Increased control over thoughts. Observing and letting go vs. participating and being caught up in.
- Acceptance and tolerance of unpopular, distressing emotions vs. being victimized, 'directed' by them
- Increased compassion, tolerance, patience
- Improved self-understanding, self-awareness, self-acceptance
- Increased creativity
- Improved memory function
- Cultivation of the spirit (not limiting the education process to 'mind' and 'body')

These are not goals, parts of a curriculum to be taught and completed. These are the side effects of a mindfulness practice -- regardless of age.

So indeed we all might be just a little ADD -- and a little angry, a little fragmented, a little stressed, a little sore, a little depressed. This is a description, in one way or another, of a 'normal day' for most of us -- including our kids. It is the life condition. It is what is. A regular practice doesn't take away these naturally occurring states. What it does do is provide us the means to address them -- not through avoidance, opposition, attachment, obsession. But through peaceful co-existence with the 'full catastrophe'.

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