I found myself this afternoon in a kind of paralysis of inattention. Between a new and exciting context, jetlag, a things-to-do list half a mile long and a gnawing worry or two, my mind was bouncing round like a shoe in a tumble-dryer, entirely unable to stay in one place. I was touching down upon a hundred tasks, and nailing none of them. Such a state is a perfect recipe for all sorts of bad mental stuff. It was making me feel like a worthless fool. I needed to do something about it.
So I played the following game with myself, a variant of something I picked up from an introduction I once read to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. It’s a simple exercise for regaining control over an over-active attention. The technique works by quickly reminding you of the difference between focus and unfocus, and it has the effect of re-calibrating your sense of normal attention, and allows you to regain control over your mind.
Here’s how the game works in a nutshell: you pay no attention for a minute, then you pay attention for a minute, then you switch back to not paying attention, and then back again to focus. You go back and forth like this for ten or twenty minutes. By the end, you somewhat magically reassume control of your mental ship.
I began, then, by spending a minute deliberately letting my attention wander. Rather than fighting and being exasperated by my somewhat manic mind, I endorsed its many movements, welcoming them. So my mind hopped and skipped between Skype updates, to Tweets to Facebook, to new emails, back to tweets, to emails, to my things to do list. I savoured the feeling of utter distraction.
Then after a minute, with great conviction, I did the exact opposite. I paid exaggeratedly good attention to a single thing. This happened to be nothing of any great interest, just a short email I needed to write. But I deliberately threw my mind at it as if it was a rare gem, a velvet flag in the desert, something utterly enthralling. Now because it was just a minute, and just a game, there was no sense of the weight of all the things I would have to be doing next. No sense of worry, no self-consciousness or self-criticism at all. Nothing was weighing upon my sense of control. So I easily and impishly kept my attention exactly on the task at hand for these sixty seconds, and playfully repelled any motions of my mind that threatened to fizz it off at a distracted angle. The minute passed at a level of truly zen focus. The email, several hundred words long, poured out seamlessly. But before it was complete, the minute was up.
The game dictated that I should switch back to exaggerated inattention, accepting any offer my mind made to fly off from my focused email to whatever object of attention my computer could present to me. That’s what I then did- and there is no lack of possible distraction on my computer. So I flicked and flittered and flapped my way between multiple tasks for a minute. I observed my distraction with indulgence. For the record, this second minute of distraction encompassed a friend’s holiday snaps, before I saw a new email had come in, so I checked it, but it was an offer in cheap duvets 3,000 miles away, so I hopped instead to live cricket updates, became bored, went back to email, nothing new, so back to a gnawing worry. A minute passed in an unhappy broth of such choppy mental nonsense.
I then returned to the email I was writing. A minute of zen composition duly poured out. Then back to distraction. Then back to focus, and so on and so forth. Twenty times back and forth I went between total distraction and an absolute, aggressive purity of focus.
By the end of twenty minutes, my mind knew the difference again between confusion and clarity. I had regained a subtle sense of whether my mental foot was still or hopping around like a cat on a hot tin roof: the difference between the two, oddly enough, can actually be really easy to miss.
After this little exercize had finished, I was able to concentrate again with great calmness on a rapid sequence of things-to-do. The list quickly halved, I’d over-estimated its length. I was back on track again.
The back and forth game can be played in conversation, while contemplating a log, while on the bus, while going to sleep. It’s I guess little more than a really unsophisticated version of beginner’s meditation, but it’s good fun, easy to try, and can get a wayward brain back on track in short order.