Saturday 10 September 2011

The Agony and Ecstasy of Multi-Tasking

In the few hours that I spend at work, in order to earn my living, I am simultaneously looking at e-mails on my laptop, messaging on my bb, reading the Huffington Post on my ipad, answering questions from my colleagues, and thinking about my companies finances, marketing and sales. I am also looking at the price of gold on Bloomberg and regretting that I did not buy some when the price was $600/ounce. 
In those few hours at the office, I am not really there.  Thousands of thoughts fill my mind and I am tired after a few hours of this juggling act.
On some days, I treat my runs much like my work.  I am quite spaced out.  My mind is multi-tasking. I am thinking about past runs or dreaming about future runs. As I run, I am listening to music, I am also thinking about work, family and friends.  I am planning my future runs and races. I am thinking about future training programs and the status of the current ones. My mind is all over the place expect where I am.  
Some days ago, I bought an air gun for my son Aryan.  He had wanted one for a long time and I had delayed buying it for as long as possible.  However, as a kid I had owned one and had enjoyed shooting at discarded battery cells, plastic bottles and such and so I thought it was only fair to buy him one.
We decided to sit in the garden and shoot at a can of Coke.  After sharing the Coke we put the can about 20 feet away and as I handed him the loaded gun, I decided to ask him the question that was asked about 5000 years ago by Dronacharya to his pupils during a lesson of archery. 
I asked Aryan, “What do you see?” He gave me a ‘look’ and said, “Coke Can!”  My question had seemed so bizarre to him that I had to tell him the story about Arjuna from the great Indian epic, The Mahabharata.   
The great master archer, Dronacharya, used to teach a great many princes the art of war, amongst other things.  Archery was his favourite subject and his favourite disciple was Arjuna. 
One day, Dronacharya had asked his disciples to shoot their arrows at the right eye of a dead bird he had hung on a tree. They were all ready with their bows and arrows but he said, “Before you shoot, I want to ask a question, and each one has to answer.”

He asked the first student, “What do you see?”

The student answered, “I am see everything: the tree, the dead bird, the sky, other trees, the birds flying, I see you my Guru and my fellow princes, I see everything”
Dronacharya went on asking the same question to the other disciples. Each disciple gave almost similar answers. 
Arjuna answered, “I don’t see anything except the right eye.”  Of course, it was only Arjuna who managed to shoot the target.
I envied young Aryan the clarity of his concentration because when it was my time to shoot the air gun, I realised that I had my eyes on the Coke can but my minds eyes were on the red blinking light of my Blackberry which meant that I had either an SMS or a BBM or an e-mail to attend to.  I realized that this was pretty pathetic.
Sometimes however, I do a bit better with my concentration when I run.  This happens when I do my speed intervals or time trials or during the race day when I want to achieve a particular time goal.  On those days I focus purely on my pace with the help of my Garmin watch.  Every few minutes I look at the display screen showing the distance, the average pace, the actual pace and the time elapsed and then I adjust my speed. 
The day when I ran to finish Comrades or acted as a pacer for the Standard Chartered Mumbai marathon was exceptional because I concentrated like a fanatic on just one goal: finishing at the right time.  There is a joy in concentrating on just one single thought. 
The ability to concentrate like that on a single goal can also make me a better runner if I can do it more often. 
But there is something even more magical than this single-pointed concentration.  Concentration is normally exclusive.  You need to drop everything to the exception of one thought.  However, unfocused awareness is all-inclusive and far more enriching. Multi-tasking can be wonderful if it has a meditative quality. 
I have recently signed up for the Three Cranes Challenge in Africa.  It is a track and trail race which is run over 3 days inside the forest.  One is supposed to spend the nights inside a tent for the duration of the stay and go out each day and run different trails through the forest. The total distance to be covered is a little over 100 km. 
I have therefore started to do some trail running.  I have found a small trail inside the Borivali National Park which is not very far from my house.  The roads inside the park are paved but there are 2 or 3 trails which run through densely forested areas and are very desolate.  Nobody goes there.  There have been news of panther sightings often enough to keep people off these trails in the early morning hours.
And I have discovered that which many of my friends already knew: trail running is absolutely magical.
It needs, not the concentration which is exclusive but an awareness which is all inclusive.  I cannot be ‘spaced-out’ while trail running nor can I have a ‘single-pointed concentration’.  I need to be present on the trail.  I need to be ‘there’ while running through the forest if I don’t want to be face down on the forest floor.   
Now, when I run alone inside the forest, I run without music, I focus on the stony path to get my footing right, I hear the insects and the sounds of small lizards and crickets around me, I hear the chirping of birds, I notice the occasional flowers on the forest floor, I hear the sound of the wind, I hear the rustling of the leaves, I feel the greenness around me, I feel the muscles in my body as they strain to move forward, I see the butterflies, I see the small puddles of rain water, I see the small crabs running to and fro, I feel the cool wind, I feel the perspiration on my skin, I can hear the sound of my breath and feel the air as it enters and leaves my mouth and nose.
But I have no time to verbalize anything, I feel and I see, I am aware, I simply watch everything as I run past, I am totally there. I have no time to think! I have no time to verbalize! The beautiful distractions inside a forest are far greater than the mundane distractions of a modern society, but the only way to run inside the forest is to see and feel everything and focus on nothing except the act of running.
I am simply running.  There is magic.
I remember a story which was shared by Osho about a Zen master. One of the Emperors of Japan had gone to see a great Zen master, Nan Yin. The Emperor asked Nan Yin, “What have you learned that makes you a great master, known all over the country?” 
Nan Yin said, “Very simple: when I chop wood, I simply chop wood; and when I carry the water from the well, I simply carry the water from the well.”

The emperor said, “I had come to listen to something spiritual. What nonsense are you talking? Chopping wood, you simply chop wood? Everybody does it; what is special in it? Carrying water from the well, you carry the water from the well? I have travelled a long distance, and I am your country’s Emperor. You should at least give me some spiritual advice.”

Nan Yin said, “That was my spiritual advice, and I want to make it clear to you that this is not what everybody is doing. It took me years to chop wood without any thoughts: to just be there, chopping.  And it is tremendously beautiful: the sound in the valley, the chips of the wood flying all over, the wind blowing through the trees, their song, their music. And I am utterly silent, just chopping wood.   Carrying water from the well is the same”
Nan Yin continued, “My whole day is the same. I have given you, in short, my basic approach of life. Be where you are. Don’t let mind go away.”

I am sure that Zen Master Nan Yin would have gone through his life with the same meditative spirit even if he had lived in this age of Blackberry’s, ipad’s, and 24 hour News Channels. 
But I, for now, am delighted if all I can manage is to always simply run, watching the space within me.


  1. awesome and so true ... thanks Amit for writing this .. we all have these challenges which sometime or the other we try to battle it out .there is so much to learn

  2. I am 80 & yet I have not mastered the Art of being where I am , also my mind runs away.What is better Being ASHTAVDHANI like Chanakya or Ekavadhani? Anyway u have put forward your view beatifully. Usha

  3. Reminded me of book 'The power of Now' by Reverred Eckhart Tolle, the core is what you have said! A small extract...
    Our drifting awareness, our tendency to take the path of least resistance by being less than fully awake to the present moment, creates a void. And the time-bound mind, which has been designed to be a useful servant, compensates by proclaiming itself master. Like a butterfly flittering from one flower to another, the mind engages past experiences or, projecting its own made-for-television movie, anticipates what is to come. Seldom do we find ourselves resting in the oceanic depth of the here and now. For it is here - in the Now - where we find our True Self, which lies behind our physical body, shifting emotions, and chattering mind.

  4. Easier said than done....i have been practicing 'to be here and now'.....but it is not as easy as it sounds.....but nevertheless this is my attempt at evolving spiritually.....