Keep Calm and Don’t Multi-Task

My Trip to Asda

Have you ever been waiting for the minimum-wage earning, high school student at the window of the fast food place to make your change while he or she is taking the order of someone behind you? And you just know the employee is going to get it wrong?

This is because our brains don’t actually multitask, according to the current research. They’re not built to. It’s no wonder is when the kid at the drive-thru makes a mistake. (The wonder is when he or she gets it right!)

Yesterday, VTH (that’s “Venerable The Husband”) and I did some grocery shopping. We’re in London for the summer and needed to stock up the flat. None of the grocery store chains here are familiar to us, so we simply went to the nearest one. While the checker was ringing up the person in front of us, a man came up to the empty check-stand behind her and started helping himself to the plastic bags. The plastic bags that the store charges 8 pence each for.

The checker asked him, politely at first, what he was doing. He went on about how the bags should be free. Honestly, he wasn’t making much sense. She shoo’ed him away and went back to what she was doing.

Then it was our turn. The man comes back, this time in front of her at yet another register. Now she’s yelling at him. He’s not stopping. So she’s shouting for the manager. “Hamet! HAMET!” All the while continuing to scan my groceries.

I pay with my debit card in the little machine. “HAMET!” she’s screaming. She’s pressing buttons on her register. She has Hamet’s attention now, and is yelling at him about the man stealing the 8 pence bags. (At the current rate of exchange, that’s 10.8 cents US per bag,) I finish my transaction and wait on the checker.

VTH says, “Hit okay.”

“I already hit okay,” I say. “I’m waiting for her.”

The checker hears me and presses a button. Hamet is chasing the bag thief away right behind me. The checker is watching the drama, occasionally offering her two cents. The little machine says “approved,” and I wait for my receipt.

“Are we ready?” asks VTH, who’s got one eye on the drama behind me.

“I’m waiting for my receipt,” I tell him.

“I don’t know what happened,” says the checker. “It should have printed. HAMET!”

I know what happened, I think to myself. You’re trying to do two things at once, and you messed one of them up. The checker is trying to get me to re-run my card. I decline because I’m concerned about being charged twice. Now I’m about ready to scream for Hamet.

Hamet shows up. “I don’t know what happened,” he says in precisely the same tone of voice the checker had used. I’m starting to think it’s part of their official script when something goes wrong. He wants me to rerun my card. There’s quite a bit of conversation about this, not rising to the level of argument due solely to my Dharma training.

Finally I agree to rerun my card provided Hamet gives me a phone number to call in case I get charged twice. Even this is long discussion, because he wants me to come back into the store if that happens. “You might have noticed from my accent that I’m not from around here,” I explain. “Coming back might not be an option.” I’m thinking I could be back in the US before my bank shows the extra charge. Hamet eventually agrees and provides me a phone number.

This whole scenario, from the time it was our turn with our roughly 15 items, took over 10 minutes. There was a long line of angry, fuming people behind me.

There are two take-aways from this experience. First, don’t multi-task. It doesn’t work. After that experience, I’ll never shop at an Asda again. With plenty of other choices, there’s no reason for me to give them a second chance. I’d be willing to bet that at least one of the people in line behind us won’t be back, either.

Multi-tasking isn’t efficient. The Buddha knew it over 2,500 years ago. Had the checker stopped scanning my items to deal with Hamet and the bag thief, then resumed when she had Hamet on the case, it would actually have been much faster. And I might shop there again.

It’s okay to pause one activity while focusing on another. In fact, it’s not just okay, it’s necessary.

Second, just stay calm. The whole situation could have been much worse had I reacted in an angry way. For the sake of complete “transparency” here, I was mad as hell. I just didn’t act on my anger. I never raised my voice. I didn’t cuss. I just looked Hamet in the eye and said, “I’m NOT happy.” Hamet was already having a tough day dealing the bag thief, and there was nothing to be gained by yet another person shouting at him.

When I was younger, I might have enjoyed telling him off. I might have felt a sense of righteous indignation. Then I encountered the Dharma and learned a more skillful way. I no longer enjoy inflicting my negativity on others.

And thank goodness. I’m much happier this way. And I think Hamet is probably happier with me this way, too, even though he doesn’t know it.

“When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, “space cadet,” cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely, the path that is your life.”

– Jon Kabat-Zinn, from “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation In Everyday Life”

Dealing with Disappointment

“Get used to disappointment.” – Westley, The Princess Bride

I’ve been dealing with several disappointments lately, some major and some minor. Since I’m an introspective person by nature, I’ve asked myself two important questions. First, what are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment? And second, what’s the skillful way through it?

The “Why” of It

The threshold question we seem to ask in the West is, “Why is this happening to me?” Luckily, I’ve learned to let that one go. When I was going through cancer treatment, well-intentioned people (usually those into the New Age movement) asked me why I thought I had cancer. I told them I hadn’t thought about it, which was true. It didn’t occur to me to ask why I had cancer any more than it had occurred to me to ask why I got to work at my dream job or be married to the perfect man.

Someone asked the Buddha whether the correct question was “Who is this I who is experiencing this disappointment?” The Buddha said that that inquiry didn’t go deep enough. The better question, taking oneself out altogether, is “What are the causes and conditions that have given rise to disappointment?”

Simply by taking the word “I” out of the question, we relax our grip on a sense of a solid, separately existing self. We are reminded of the interrelatedness of all things. Now we’re ready to take a deep dive into causes and conditions.

Let’s use a gardening analogy. There’s a beautiful orange tree in my backyard. Why is it there? Because (for the cause of) a seed was planted there. But that’s not enough. Conditions must also be right. In this case, we need the right soil composition, sunlight, and enough water. When these causes and conditions line up just so, I get to enjoy the orange tree and make fresh OJ!

So, what are the causes and conditions of this current disappointment? The causes are that plans have changed. There was and is absolutely nothing I can do about those plans being changed. That’s outside of my control. What about the conditions?

Ah, this is where it gets interesting. The conditions were that I was looking forward to those plans, I had expectations, I was attached (in the Buddhist sense of being overly attached in an unhealthy way) to those plans!

There’s nothing wrong with looking forward to fun events. It only becomes a problem when we’re so attached to the future – as I was – that we create disappointment and suffering for ourselves when plans don’t go the way we wanted them to.

Looking at my inquiry, I can clearly see that my clinging to my plans was the cause of my disappointment. It’s just like the Buddha said in the Second Noble Truth:

“Suffering, as a noble truth … is the five categories of clinging [to] objects” (Dhamma-cakka-ppavattana-sutta — SN 56.11).

The “How” of It

So now what? The logical answer seems to be letting go of my attachment and clinging to my plans. But when have emotions ever been logical? What is the skillful way through this disappointment and self-created suffering?

Acceptance, taking life as it comes. Fortunately, we Buddhists have a practice for that: equanimity meditation.

The practice goes like this. You choose three people, things, or events from your life. Once should be someone or thing you’re overly attached to. One should be something you’re don’t like. At all. And one should be something neutral, or close to neutral.

Start with the person or thing you like, and imagine them sitting on one side of you. Spend a few minutes tuning in to all the feelings you have for them. Then imagine the person or thing you don’t like on your other side. Once again, tap in to your feelings about them. Finally, place the neutral person or thing in front of you, and allow your feelings to settle. You should feel generally positive about this “neutral” person or thing, but without any emotional intensity.

Then try to feel all three at once! Take some time to see if you can balance your feelings for the two extremes to match what you feel for the central figure. You may want to remind yourself that they all have an equal right to exist, even if you enjoy being with one more than the others.

Once your feelings have leveled off, just breathe for a few minutes before ending your meditation.

In my meditation, I place my cherished plans on the side of too much clinging. I place something I absolutely do NOT want to have happen on my other side. (I don’t “catastrophize” here, picking the worst thing that could ever happen no matter how unlikely.) Then I place some other event, which would be nice but isn’t terribly exciting, in the middle. After a while, I come to realize that there are many likely potential outcomes for my particular situation, and any of them would be okay.

Wrapping It Up

In short, I am the architect of my own suffering – by clinging to my plans – and I can relieve my own suffering – by letting go through meditation practice. May all disappointments be as easily alleviated!

No More Waiting

“I hate waiting.” – Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

During my journey through cancer treatment, I did a lot of waiting. I waited in doctors’ offices, I waited in exam rooms. I waited in labs for my blood to be drawn, and I waited on hold with my insurance company to find out whether they’d approve payment. I waited in pharmacies for my prescriptions to be prepared, and I waited for the MRI to start. And all this while not knowing if I’d survive the process.

At some point, I decided I wasn’t going to wait any more. Life was more precious than ever before, and the Buddhist concept of “impermanence” had been smacked upside my head with the cosmic 2 x 4.

My first response was to take my Kindle to all medical appointments. That way I could read something that interested me and not feel that I was “wasting” my time by “waiting.” While I couldn’t take the Kindle everywhere, I could take it most places. If I’m in the middle of a good book – and I usually am – this is something I still do today.

This worked great until I got too sick from chemo to be able to read.

Then I remembered what the Buddha said about mindfulness of breathing: you can do it anywhere because the breath is always with you. So, I started meditating instead of waiting. I meditated in doctors’ offices, exam rooms, labs …you get the picture. Best of all, I could meditate in the MRI tube. (You can’t take a Kindle in there!)

As my treatments wound down and my life began to adjust to its “new normal,” I found other places to meditate: in the car at stoplights, in line at the grocery store, and standing around while other people got ready to go. Any time I found myself “waiting,” I took the opportunity to meditate, instead.

This has become part of my daily practice. Instead of either becoming frustrated by a delay, or daydreaming, I use this time in the best way I know how: for my spiritual practice.

I can honestly say that I don’t wait anymore. Care to join me?