I have to be honest, as I write this I am in the middle of a conversation. Actually, I am in the middle of many conversations.
I am waiting for a WhatsApp from a friend, for someone to reply to a post I put on Facebook and an important work email. I am also mentally formulating a response to a growing debate on my family’s WhatsApp group whilst avoiding opening a reply from a colleague so that the ticks don’t go blue to avoid him knowing that I have read and not replied to him.
But don’t worry. My phone is on vibrate so that I can “concentrate.”
We live in a world where we have all acquired the art of multi-tasking. It has become a basic life skill- much like hunting was in the Stone Age - you simply cannot live without it. There is too much going on in our immediate circle for us to only do one thing at a time.
As a result- our productivity has flourished. Human ingenuity is at its highest. We are BUSY and we have much to show for it. Dishwashers, washing machines, calculators, algorithms all free up our time to focus on more important tasks.
But perhaps in our ability to multi-task, we have lost the ability to single- task. Is “undivided attention” a thing of the past?
The Talmud talks about two different types of concentration. On a basic level- when we do something meaningful and purposeful, we are required to be aware of what it is that we are doing. I can wash the dishes without giving it a thought, it is a function of my body- not my conscious mind. But to celebrate my child’s birthday- I would hope that I can be present, aware and fully conscious of the precious moment that I am in. This is one level of focus- not on the task itself but on the fact that one is doing that task.
The Talmud describes another level of focus. It is more demanding and as such its requirement is reserves for extra special occasions. More than just acting consciously- I can act meaningfully. In this mode, not only am I focused on the fact that I am doing something important, I am actively thinking about the meaning behind the actions that I am doing as a do them.
Let’s take driving for example. When a person becomes an experienced driver- they can drive almost on auto-pilot, unaware of the moments their foot hits the gear peddle or their head checks the rear-view mirror. But if the driver sees a police car in the near distance, they shift up a gear (no pun intended) to the first level of focus. Disengage autopilot. Check mirrors. Change gears. Break. Check mirrors. Glance. Sigh of relief.
But let’s say this driver has recently had a near-death car accident. As they press the accelerator - they keep thinking about life, and how it is precariously in their hands. They grip the steering wheel with a sense of far deeper focus. On life and staying alive. That is the second level of focus.
And so I sit at my computer, writing this article. I glance guiltily at my phone. Back at the screen. Sigh. Check the phone once more. Just once more... I so often find myself craving moments when I can avoid the guilt of looking at my phone too much, and the panic of not looking at it enough. Fortunately, such moments are inbuilt into the Jewish week. For example, on Shabbat we shut down the multi-faceted elements of our existence. We slow down and we enter a state of peace. We once again become human beings - not just human doings.
Jewish laws of prayer too, invite us to focus both on the activity of prayer and on the experience of prayer. Prayer is referred to in the Torah as a “meeting” - with oneself. Three times a day we stop and refocus. It’s almost a deep-cleanse of our distracted minds.
Blessings on food and the laws of Kashrut are another area that provide a rechannelling of headspace, to stop and think. Eating can be such a mundane and automated activity. Through these laws we can make eating more than an activity- we make it into an opportunity to experience life with deeper concentration, present in each and every bite.
The timer beeps from the oven, interrupting my flow. The doorbell rings. My phone (once again) vibrates.
I can’t help but think: doing many things with divided attention may be more productive, but it certainly is less profound than doing one thing with my whole being.
- December 15th 2020