I was in the gym today and saw a guy doing one-armed push-ups while talking on his cell phone. No joke; I couldn't even make that up. When I told my wife, she said, "I got that beat. Some guy was in the cardio theater"--a movie theater with cardio equipment--"talking on his cell phone, watching Transformers, and jogging on the treadmill. All at the same time."
Talk about multitasking!
When I was hired as an English teacher, my supervisor told me that, besides teaching experience, she was most impressed with applicants who had waitressing experience. Because teaching requires you to juggle ten different tasks at once. Back then, I was impressed by someone's ability to multitask. Not anymore.
Now I call it multi-crapping, because all that winds up happening when you try to manage several tasks at once is that they all get done like crap. I don't have any research to back this claim up, but I'm sure it's out there. After a decade of praising multitasking, educators and employers are finally catching on to its side effects: inattention, carelessness, accidents, poor concentration skills, amongst other things.
As it relates to Buddhism, multitasking is the enemy of mindfulness. It forces you to be nowhere at once. Rather than concentrate on one task, we're spread thin across several. But I'm not telling you anything you don't already know.
As Zen practitioners, we often scoff at this kind of mindlessness (which it literally is), but let's not be so quick to cast the first stone. For there's a much more insidious form of multitasking that we're all guilty of: mental multitasking. While it's obvious when someone is physically trying to do more than one things at once--talk on the phone, cook, and watch the children--it's much more subtle when the brain wanders. For instance, when I saw the push-up guy in the gym, I automatically began writing this blog post in my head. Talk about hypocrisy: I was doing the same thing he was; the only difference was that I was doing it in my mind.
To be mindful means to be present with whatever life hands us. Whether we're physically juggling three chores at once or mentally planning our weekend plans doesn't make any difference--it all amounts to the same thing: are we present or not?
If we are, good. Let's keep it up. If we aren't, we're just doing one-armed push-ups on our cell phones.