Six months into COVID-19 pandemic coupled with a botched public health response, we find ourselves in a new (ab)normal. Functional spaces dedicated for specific societal purposes have found their way into our homes, transforming them simultaneously into makeshift offices, fitness studios, movie theaters, remote learning classrooms and day care centers.
Parents, especially those with young kids and elderly parents are increasingly having to multiplex their waking hours with responsibilities that were hitherto delegated to others in the family or community at large. For those lucky enough to avail that luxury anyway, before the pandemic struck.
Increased demand on one’s attention by kids, pets, work and internet-tethered devices place a significant burden on our mind by puncturing it’s attention span. To nimbly context switch between a foreground task while holding many in the background vying for a slot, all the while holding the mind’s fort requires skillful dispensing of attention. That is something we can develop and hone with wisdom. Particularly, wisdom of the mindfulness alarm.
As a case in point, let us say a toddler is vying for her parent’s attention while the parent is busy responding to an urgent and important email from their boss. Let us also suppose the parent is intensely focused on composing the appropriate response on their mobile phone or laptop, immersed in thought, pecking away at their keypad.
This situation is not all that uncommon — we often find ourselves in similar if not identical situation on a daily basis. What is the appropriate response of the parent? Most parents may say, it depends.
What Is Skillful?
We can see this situation unfolding in many ways. Mindfulness practice can come to our rescue in navigating it skillfull. One important observation to make here is the notion of “priorities” that the parent may entertain. Is finishing the train ride of thoughts a priority? After all, the parent may feel justified in taking this stance. They bought the ticket when they embarked on the e-mail response, all immersed in the ride and the context switch may come at a heavy price — like losing their train of thought and an impressive retort they were about to dish out to their boss.
Wisdom of Choice
In a spectrum of possible responses, dismissing the toddler summarily, even rebuking her, is a possible ugly outcome. A less severe one may be annoyance at her tugging at you (the parent) to come listen to her story while you seem unwilling or reluctant to get off that ride. Or perhaps ignoring her completely because you are so fully immersed that you are oblivious to her presence. The list of possibilities of this situation unfolding are aplenty.
Though not guaranteed, responding to the toddler depends on adroitly context switching with mindful maneuvering of the unfolding situation still wide open to a spectrum of responses.
Accumulated moments of skillful attention that one cultivates can inform the parent of wise and not-so-wise choices. Awareness of the child’s presence must act as a mindfulness alarm that the situation requires a deft context switch. Awareness of the thought-train ride is next. Thinking of thoughts without the parent being aware of them is unwise and can therefore lead to an unskillful choice.
Noticing and taking stock of associated emotions — perhaps having felt their blood pressure go up a couple of notches only a moment ago, while reading their boss’ email. Contrasting their mood with the toddler’s, happy and seemingly relentless in vying for their attention at an amazing story she can’t wait to share.
Getting off the discursive thoughts of appropriate email response may be the most skillful choice. But that requires some preparation well in advance.
Decoupling the physiological response of blood pressure arising from the psychological one triggered by the email. Remembering to take a deep breath. Noticing the deep breath that helps reset the mood. Then turning attention to the child, perhaps noticing her curiosity and playful twinkle in her eye. Mustering a smile, then handling the situation by saying something benign at the very least. Or expressing genuine interest in her story and by listening intently.
Email can wait a few more minutes. Those few minutes with her may mean the world to her and how the rest of her day and the parent’s may unfold. It can also give the parent a much needed pause. Eventually, removed from the heat of the moment, re-reading the email not yet sent, may trigger yet another mindfulness alarm. It may even shock them to see how mean their e-mail retort was from an other’s perspective. And perhaps, saving the draft or rewording it may be a better way to handle that other situation.
Paying clear attention to one’s body, mind, emotions and thoughts, moment by moment, is not an easy endeavor. One can cultivate the practice of paying clear attention, so that when situations arise that demand a context switch and their mindfulness alarm does go off, it informs them they need proper handling. Therein lies the wisdom of choosing how and when to respond skillfully. After all, who can deny we all live and act out what’s in our mind, mostly unaware of thoughts and emotions buffeting us around?