Is distraction the natural state of mind? (Do we all have ADD?)

Buddhism: Day 1 and 2

I did my first two meditations over the past few days and I have to say they were very….difficult.  Here’s how it went down:

First, I would close my laptop, close the blinds in my apartment, and turn off all the lights. I set my iPhone timer to 20 minutes and sit down on the floor with my back learning against a wall. I’m not flexible enough to sit cross-legged comfortably so I just keep my legs straight out.

The particular form of meditation I’m testing is called Anapanasati, or “mindfulness of breathing.”

In this type of meditation, you focus on your breath. Ideally, you breathe through your nose and focus on the sensation and rhythm of breathing. You count up to five on the inhale, and then count to five again on the exhale.

The first minute or so went fine. I was concentrating on the breath and the counting. However, it wasn’t long before my mind wandered.

“Inhale….1, 2, 3, 4, 5, okay now exhale. Slow breathing is great! I wish I could do this at my desk at work. Dammit I have so much to do at work…oh shit I need to focus on my breathing!”

That happened repeatedly during the 20 minute exercise the entire time. In fact, during my first meditation, my mind wandered so far from the breath that I nearly dozed off!

And my mind wandered to some weird stuff, not just work. I thought about some TV show I’m watching, philosophical concepts, what I’d write about for this blog, happy hour, etc.

It’s the mind monkeys at work.

Now, what’s interesting is that these thoughts occurred when I put myself in a fairly distraction-less environment. I wasn’t at my computer, the TV wasn’t on, the temperature was comfortable, and there weren’t any distracting noises.

What this suggests is that distraction isn’t something caused by something external to us, but rather, distraction is the natural state of our minds!

Culturally, we’ve caught on to the fact that iPhones and e-mail and the modern work environment are contributors to distraction, but we blame them as the cause of our distraction.

Consider this excerpt from the NYT article, “Growing up Digital: Wired for Distraction.”

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention.

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” said Michael Rich, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston. And the effects could linger: “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The implication of this article is that technology is to blame for our wandering minds and declining attention spans.

But if that’s true, why is that Buddhism recognized “monkey mind” thousands of years ago? If I can be distracted by my own thoughts during meditation, what makes us think that technology is the real cause of our ADD?

If distraction is indeed an inherent trait in all people, than the solution doesn’t lie in manipulating the external environment (turn off the cell phone, don’t check e-mail, etc.), though that can help, the solution lies in training our mind to ignore distractions.

What’s ironic is that as we’re blaming cell phones and e-mail for our current attention span problems, we’ve also started diagnosing people with Attention-Deficit Disorder (ADD), which says that short attention span is a brain problem.

With one category of people, “normal” people, modernity says, “it’s technology that is causing all our distraction problems,” and with another group of people we say, “it’s your brain that is causing all your distraction problems.”

With the latter group, we prescribe drugs like Adderall to get them to focus, and for “normal” distractible people, we tell them to batch e-mails and use various productivity techniques.

But what if the distinction is nonsense? What if we all suffer from “ADD?” I guess we could take drugs and combine that with productivity techniques, but I’m willing to bet the more effective solution lies in Buddhism, with “mindfulness of breath.”

Now, excuse me as I check my e-mail.