On Mind Wandering

Kids and Boredom

The other day, during dinner with my friend Jon, we were discussing what is the most negative thing brought about by technology today. Hands down, I said the use of technology in conditioning our children to form bad habits. Coincidentally, after dinner, we were walking to the car and saw a mother and a child. The child, maybe 5 years old, was whining and crying in public. The mother reached into her bag, pulled out an iPad, and gave it to her child. Immediately, he shut up and was mesmerized by the screen in front of him. I said, “Darn it, I wish that didn’t just happen.”

I’m not going to decree that technology is the problem here. You can see through history about the negativity we assign to technology, like John Philip Sousa talking about “a marked deterioration in American music and musical taste, an interruption in the musical development of the country, and a host of other injuries to music in its artistic manifestations, by virtue – or rather by vice – of the multiplication of the various music-reproducing machines.” He was referring to the gramophone. Every recent generation has something new to distract their attention, from radio to televisions to computers to tablet and phone devices. It’s more important to remember technology is just a tool, and we determine how we use this tool.

In my dinner discussion with Jon, he remarked how kids don’t know how to feel bored anymore. The wonders of using Lego’s or playing with physical objects, or just having absolutely nothing to play with makes the mind wander. Perhaps we are stripping children of this ability by being wired 24/7. Being wired has this loss of sense of self. Taking television as an example, we’re being sponges absorbing what comes at us in a one-way communication channel. And when we think we’re learning, we only grasp the moments most memorable by design. By writers and advertisers who are seeking your attention in this attention economy. Our brains are looking for something to stimulate our brains. We forget being bored forces our brain to find an external stimuli in other places, perhaps in the depths of our creativity or a sense of mindfulness.

Present Mind

Mundane tasks like cooking, showering, or driving can stimulate day dreaming. And the state of day dreaming may be more beneficial than conventional wisdom. From an article from WIRED, the author describes one study in which mind wandering has shown to exhibit executive and default regions working in conjunction with one another. This means the mind wandering state may not be as mindless as we all think it is.

Imagine a scenario where we are waiting for our triple shot expresso to be made at Starbucks. The barista is having complications with the espresso machine and you’re waiting there for ten minutes. And in this ten minutes, you do something profound; you do nothing. With that nothing, the brain wanders, wondering about the tiles on the floor, how many chores you have when you go home. The void of empty is filled by a stream of consciousness. But the moment you grab your phone turn it on, you’re sucked into a different world, one that has intended designs and patterns of habit.

And that’s what we do; we condition ourselves to lose the present mind. We have the decision whether to wait there staring at the barista or reach into your pocket or purse for your phone and divert your attention from the situation to something more productive, like Candy Crush. Hanging out with a friend the other day, we went out for some tapioca drinks, and while waiting for my order, she sat down at a table and whipped out her phone and started to play a game. This annoyed me, because I thought we were two very present people, but at the moment of pure boredom, she resorted to a quick, cheap attention grabber. I’m not against phone games, but there’s a disconnect when you’re hanging out with someone and one or both of your escape to the virtual world instead of sharing what you have in the present. I try my best not to use my phone as I’m hanging out with someone else. I’ll admit I whip out my phone from time to time, but I recognize how that affects the other party.

Boredom in Cooking

In an interview with Jon Favreau, he talks about mundane tasks while training with a chef for researching his movie, “Chef”. He mentions that during the mundane chore of chopping mis en place, he had a disconnect in chefs doing this laborious work when it could be done by the line cooks. But after all of the prep, using the prepped ingredients for cooking made him much more self aware of the process. He had a deeper appreciation for the food that comes out and about the story of the meal rather than be the passive participant.

When I’m cooking, I find myself in an elated state of mind, functioning almost seamlessly, handling multiple tasks with relative ease. Typically, this is in the form of going from chopping vegetables, heating the pan, and cleaning my dishes. I know exactly where I left off from one activity to another, and the brain feels very mindless. But this sparks immense creativity. If I’m missing or don’t have enough of an ingredient, I’ll improvise, figuring out alternatives. I take a holistic view of what I’m cooking and try to find a substitute ingredient to accomplish the same thing, like using lime juice instead of fresh lemon, or paprika instead of cayenne pepper. I get fairly bored following recipes because I was to push myself outside of the box and add or remove ingredients, or try some other form of heating instead of the method provided. It’s cooking sessions like this where I wonder why more people aren’t cooking.

Mindfulness in Jazz

In the 9th grade, I joined the school’s jazz band. It was my first jazz class, and I was failing to grasp the concept of improvisation. My area of expertise was conservatory classical music, and I simply looked at the sheet music as scripture. When I looked at the dashed out measures with a scale key on the top, I was afraid. I didn’t know all of these scales by heart, let alone follow it with no notes. I was dumbfounded and kept to myself, pretending to know what the lines of music meant. The jazz instructor came in, and we played Take Five right off the bat. I was introduced to strange sounds all around me, listening to students improvise sound during the solo section, and I thought it was pure magic. I tried to mimic their sounds after class, but it sounded like rubbish. My band teacher instructed us to listen to the greats. Other students informed me to follow the scales as reference points, use existing bits of the rhythm, and combine a bunch of riffs together. Climbing up and down octaves gives more variety, and don’t worry too much about playing fast.

For some of my off time, I was attempting to learn about music theory and why a combination of notes or in sequence could have a consonance or dissonance sound, i.e. sound pleasing or destructive. I obsessed with figuring out how to improvise with an analytical mind. But reading through snippets of autobiographies of Miles Davis and John Coltrain, it painted a different picture. The analytical mind shuts down and brings about this sense of mindlessness. It become music played through feeling or emotion rather than thinking of what note to press next. The musician will think of things in sounds rather than the notes in letters, i.e. play “A” next.

In the band’s end-of-year performance, I was informed that I would get to improvise. I was nervous as hell during the practices leading up to the performance. It was about a one and a half minutes, attempting to solo during Miles Davis’ “Freddy Freeloader”. I spent time memorizing the F scale, thinking less about the notes and more about the sound. During the performance, you could hear my solo had elements of the main melody with traversals on the blues scale. I failed at utilizing more than one octave, but it didn’t matter. The nervousness subsided midway during the solo and I entered a mindful state. I stopped thinking about psyching myself out and corrected any dissonance I heard. After the solo, a second sense of relief overcame me and I looked at the crowd. I received applause and I probably could’ve cried at that point.

Today, I’ll occasionally listen to “Kind of Blue” for the 50th time, and just become so entranced by Davis’ solos. I often think of what must be going through Davis’ mind as he’s playing the music. And then I’ll listen to one of his acid jazz works, and become overwhelmed by the insanity of the sound. The pick-up in speed, the downbeats, the intricacies of melody that seem to come from randomness, Davis’ improvisation skills sound like no one else in the world. And he does one-take, live in front of an audience. One has to wonder if this was his nirvana.

Take-aways

I feel the toll constant attention takes. I have lower desires to reach out to others, feel awkward trying to talk with people when I do, and create dark places for myself if I’m alone. When I come up for air, letting nothing happen around me, meditate, or find a space to be mindful of my breathing, all of the prior described situations are flipped. I’m eager to talk with others, I feel less awkward in talking, and I create a happy place when I’m alone. Next time you find yourself impulsively rushing for your phone, don’t satisfy the impulse and give boredom a chance. You may find rewarding outcomes.