When the Buddha says, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great harm than an unrestrained mind,” I think he is referring, in part, to the current penchant for multitasking. When the mind tries to do several things at once, it does not do any of them very well. This is an empirical fact proven by numerous experiments, and it is easy to test out for yourself: try texting a message while catching the latest baseball scores on the radio and discussing some recent relationship difficulty with your partner.
It is not that the mind is incapable of such feats of parallel processing—it’s just not a very healthy thing to do. One image in the Pali texts compares the flow of consciousness to a mountain stream flowing swiftly downhill. If there are several outlets through which the water is dispersed, when it reaches the plain it will be little more than a trickle. Mental energy is finite, and our mind is diminished in direct proportion to how much its attention is fractured. The problem is not so much attention deficit as it is attention dispersion, when the available attention is spread thin. Just like water spreading out to cover a surface, the wider the expanse the shallower the depth. By trying to do many things at once, we train the mind to process information in ways that may well be effective, but for a price: we can no longer be deeply aware of what we are doing.
Of course, being deeply aware of what we are doing is the very crux of the Buddhist teachings, which is why the practice of meditation is so important for unifying and consolidating the mind. The Buddha said, “I know of no single thing more conducive to great welfare than a developed mind.” Concentration practice, known as samadhi, consists of gathering together and placing the mind upon an object of the senses, or upon a mental object. We do this reflexively all the time, but in Buddhist practice we are invited to do it with deliberate intention, with sustained energy, and with consistency over multiple mind moments.
It is natural for the mind to resist such discipline and to wander off to any aspect of experience that is new, unusual, or apparently more interesting. Early humans did not survive in nature by ignoring incoming stimuli; like birds or chipmunks, we are more accustomed to glancing around constantly, attentive to both threat and opportunity. But most of us no longer live in a hostile natural environment, and the threats that confront us in the meditation hall are usually manufactured by our minds. Cultivating mental focus, consistently returning to a primary object, and settling into ever-deeper states of tranquility helps to gradually reign in the mind’s wandering in a way that consolidates the power of awareness.
According to the Buddhist way of looking at things, each moment of consciousness is a precious gift. Awareness itself is the primary currency of the human condition, and as such it deserves to be spent carefully. Sitting quietly in a serene environment, letting go of the various petty disturbances that roil and diminish consciousness, and experiencing as fully as possible the poignancy of this fleeting moment—this is an enterprise of deep intrinsic value, an aesthetic experience beyond words. The more unified, stable, luminous, and attentive the mind is at this moment, the more profound the experience.
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