This time of year many Christians around the world observe the season of Advent. This season provides a counter cultural opportunity for observers to focus on and prepare for the spiritual significance of Christmas. Even if you don't observe this season of Advent, it is still a wonderful opportunity to slow down and focus your attention on what matters most in your life. Living Compass produces a small booklet for Advent each year that includes daily reflections to help readers with their spiritual focusing. The theme for this year's booklet is "Practicing Simplicity with All Your Heart, Soul, Strength, and Mind." We have invited guest writers each week to share their wisdom and so in this week's column I am sharing the wise words of our guest writer The Rev. Dr. Carol Petty, Canon for Wellness from the Episcopal Diocese of Texas. Her reflection appears below, followed by a few of my own thoughts that were inspired by her writing.
Recently I made a commitment to simplicity. My goal: focus on one thing at a time. I wish I could say it's my daily practice, but in reality, it's my daily challenge.
To encourage myself, I taped slips of paper with the words one thing at a time to the frames of my computer monitors at work and at home. I need these reminders, as I am constantly tempted by the lure of multi-tasking. Surely I can accomplish more/faster/better if I do several things at once! I tell myself (I lie!) that I can type a coherent e-mail to one person while carrying on a productive phone conversation with someone else.
Ultimately I realize that the quality of both tasks suffers from my divided attention. More importantly, the relationships with the people on the other end of those tasks have also suffered. The reality is that multi-tasking never lives up to its promise. Those who do it end up, as I do, distracted and frustrated, probably accomplishing less-certainly less well-than if they'd just done one thing at a time.
Multi-tasking is a hallmark of our culture. Smart phones invite 24-hour access to interactive news, work-related communications, and social media posts. In a matter of seconds we can learn about-and comment on-earthquakes in Japan, gun violence in America, local sporting events, and our neighbor's recently posted cat video!
It's no wonder that our "monkey minds" resist efforts to focus, instead staying busy zipping from one thing to another, preventing us from being fully present to the task-or the person-at hand. Whether it is a task at work, or a conversation with a family member, the person or task before us should be the most important thing in this moment. It deserves our full attention.
If I scan my newsfeed while talking to my spouse, how does that impact our relationship? If I spend my day off, supposedly my day to rest, working on a mobile device, how am I shortchanging my own well-being?
Each of us has been given the gift of the present moment so that we might bring our full attention to our own lives, to our relationships, and our work and play. We don't know what will come tomorrow, but we do have right now. I made this particular commitment to simplicity because I don't want to squander God's gift of now.
I am choosing to make every effort to bring my full attention to whatever or whoever is in front of me in the moment. I choose to focus on one thing at a time. As we begin this season of Advent today, I invite you to join me in this challenge. Written by Rev. Carol Petty
Carol's invitation and challenge to focus on one thing at a time reminds me of a story about a student who asked a wise and enlightened Buddhist monk how becoming fully enlightened changes a person. The monk answered by saying, "Before I was enlightened I chopped wood and carried water." The student listened intently and then asked what the monk did after attaining enlightenment. After pausing for a moment, the monk said, "Now that I have achieved enlightenment I chop wood and carry water, but I now give my work my full, undivided attention."
You and I are not Buddhist monks, and our daily routines most likely do not include chopping wood or carrying water, but the point of the story is to focus fully on whatever it is you and I do each day. If we are washing dishes, we can try to give our full attention to washing the dishes. If we are talking with a friend or family member, we can try to give them our full, undivided attention. We may not be able to do this every minute of the day but we can try to reduce distractions and give our full, undivided attention to whatever we are doing throughout the day. Focus on doing one thing at a time, giving it your full attention can change we live in the world.
I don't know if this will help any of us attain enlightenment, but it will certainly be enlightening to discover how often we are distracted and how rare it is for us to give anything or anyone our full, undivided attention.