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Marietta McCarty

Marietta McCarty

It Works: Doing One Thing at a Time

The Efficiency and Ease of Single-Tasking

Recently I spoke at a three-day retreat devoted to the concept of simplicity and how to realize it in the specific circumstances of our individual lives. The desire of these participants mirrors that of countless students and readers to slow down and simplify. As usual, the arch-enemy can be spotted: the frazzled, distracted, cluttered mind. The answer: learn to give undivided attention to the present moment. How: practice the art of concentration. The outlook: hard job, but hopeful, ever-hopeful.

Isn't it interesting that we must work so hard to get down to the here and now? More interesting still, we do it to ourselves, taking on too much, growing increasingly anxious at getting it all done, restless nights ending frenzied days. But if we practice concentrating, we can be busy, focused, and efficient. Best of all, we can breathe and relax. Not one weekend seeker of simplicity denied that she could make these changes with determined effort. Almost all wondered if they had the discipline to cultivate good focus and stay with the effort for a lifetime. All realized that acquiring an undivided mind is work without end.

When twentieth century Zen master Shunryu Suzuki was asked what and how he taught his students about consciousness, he replied that "I just try to teach my students how to hear the birds sing" ( To Shine One Corner of the World ). That's it! That's practice, the ability to hear only the bird's song, the growing ability to effortlessly fend off distraction gaining with each note heard. Here are some tips shared at the retreat for ways to develop a clear mind:

Listen to a piece of music several times. Note what you missed. Note the specific places where your mind wandered. Listen to the music again, as a whole piece, after several times of zeroing in on specific parts.

Carve out the time to be still every day. Sit. Take a lazy walk. Sit. Don't expect immediate results, but trust that this stillness will seep more and more into mind and into busyness; it will steady and calm you.

Watch nothing but the ball at a sporting event, despite fan reaction. Then, watch nothing but one player. Nothing else! Now, follow one referee up and down, back and forth. Hold fast to the referee no matter what.

Read a paragraph in a newspaper or magazine. Go back and reread, catching moments of waning focus that now become clear. Read the paragraph again.One more time....

Rake leaves. Clean house. Wash dishes. Nothing else, no electronics or conversation, focus just on the task at hand.

As Suzuki told his busy, simultaneously doubting and trusting him students, "limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment..." (Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). We can set our own limits. And when we are busy, we can handle it all, instant by instant. But it takes practice.

Why does the government need to step in to outlaw texting and driving? Good grief! We know better, and with practice, we can live better, like Mac the cat, one drip of water at a time. Back to now, now.