Full text of mindfulness expert Sam Chase’s talk: Paying Attention & Mindfulness at TEDxNYU conference. In this talk, Sam explains what it means to be truly mindful and how every one of us can incorporate the practice into our lives.
Best quote from this talk:
“Very simply, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment on purpose with an attitude of non-judgment.”
Sam Chase – Mindfulness expert
My name is Sam Chase and for the next 15 minutes I really hope you’ll pay attention.
Now I’m hopeful, but I am not going to let myself get too optimistic because I teach meditation for a living, and I study the science of conscious attention.
So I know a little bit about the kind of things that tend to happen inside the human mind. For example, I know that in 2010, a group of researchers out of Harvard got together to study the daily thoughts of over 5,000 people from over 80 countries.
One of the things that they found was that our minds are actually wandering about 47% of the time, which means if half of you are actually paying attention right now. I’m probably beating the odds by just a little bit.
But even more important than that, they also found that when our minds are wandering, we tend to be less happy than when we’re focused on what’s happening in the present moment.
Now mind-wandering actually has a whole bunch of benefits. It’s a huge part of how we do our creative thinking; it’s where all of our planning happens. It actually seems to be a big part of how we keep a coherent sense of ourselves, who we are as time goes by.
But when it comes to happiness, it seems like most of that happens in the here and now. And how we handle what’s happening in the here and now can get pretty tricky too.
A 2014 study brought together a group of hundreds of people probably a lot like you. One by one, these people were placed alone in an empty room for 15 minutes just to be with their thoughts.
On the other side of that 15 minutes, most of those people rated that time as boring and unpleasant.
To find out just how boring and unpleasant, in a later version of the same experiment, before they put people alone in a room they gave them a painful electric shock. One of the totally unsurprising results of this study was that they discovered people really do not like painful electric shocks.
In fact, many of the people in the study reported that they would pay a significant amount of money to ensure that that experience never happened again. And when those people were brought into that empty room, this time they tweaked things just a little bit.
They said “You have 15 minutes to be alone with your thoughts. By the way, on the table, there’s a button. If you push that button, you’re going to receive the same painful electric shock that you just said you would pay to avoid; you don’t have to push it. If you do, it’s not going to make the time any shorter. It’s totally up to you. See you in a little bit.”
15 minutes later, 25% of the women, 66% of the men had pushed that button at least one time. Many of them pushed it several times. One guy who must have had a lot on his mind pushed it 190 times in 15 minutes. If you’re trying to do the math, let me help you out; it’s about once every five seconds.
Why on earth would we push that button? We don’t actually know. It could be boredom; could be anxiety; could be that sometimes pain feels less painful than thinking.
One of the things we do know is that for many of us when we’re let loose in the landscape of our own minds, one of the first things we can discover is it feels like a jungle in there. And sometimes we’ll do almost anything we can to get out.
The philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously wrote that all of humanity’s problems stem from our inability to sit quietly in a room alone.
And if you’ve ever had a couple moments inside your own mind that would have you reaching for the button, well maybe you’d agree.
But our conscious attention is like a precious natural resource. And like every natural resource, its power is limited. Now there’s actually no way that we can calculate how much information the human brain can handle. But one simple estimate suggests that if we were to total up all of the information we receive every second from the sensory neurons in our body: sight and sound and taste, touch and smell… every second your brain is being bombarded by about 11 million bits of information.
Anyone want to take a guess of how much of that information your conscious attention can handle? It’s about sixty bits… 60. The other 99.9994% of what’s happening around you, what’s happening inside you right now is being processed by parts of your brain that are operating largely unconsciously. And all of that experience might not ever filter its way up to your conscious attention.
So what do we do with all of that? Because so much of the quality of your daily life will be determined by how you invest and manage this precious resource of your conscious attention. Especially now when more than ever thanks to the miracles of modern technology, you can be texting while driving, while swiping right, while ordering Seamless, while skyping, while live streaming the season finale of The Bachelor. More things than ever are vying for this precious 60 bit bandwidth.
So what do we do? Wemultitask. We take this little conscious attention and we try to spread it out among everything so that we don’t have to miss anything.
But one of the things I’m here to tell you today is you suck at multitasking. And so do I. Welcome to the club. Because they’re kind of multitasking that I just described, it doesn’t actually exist. It’s a a cognitive illusion, sort of like the way when you go to a movie you know what’s happening on the screen is just picture picture picture picture picture. But it feels like movement and you don’t ever second-guess it.
In a similar way, when you’re multitasking in the way that I just talked about, what’s actually happening inside your brain is that your conscious attention is ping-ponging back and forth from one thing to another again and again and again and again. And this all happens so fast that you can’t even notice it. It’s like the greatest trick the mind ever played was to fool itself.
Now one of the things that we know is that when we engage in this kind of behavior, psychologists call it task switching and when we do it, we’re actually worse at just about everything we do. So we multitask to try and do more things faster and most often we tend to take more time and perform worse in the process.
One study that literally followed people around throughout their workday found that when we get interrupted in a task, we probably won’t return to it for an average of 23 minutes, sometimes more.
Now I talk about this all the time and I know that there is at least one person in the room right now who is raising their objection and going wait wait wait wait, I multitask all the time and I am super good at it. Maybe you all have problems but I have got this down. And we have a study just for you.
Because no great surprise, the people who do this kind of multitasking feel like they’re the best at it and we find that they actually tend to perform the worst. Perhaps even more troubling, we see some really disturbing side effects to this kind of behavior.
We multitask to handle the stress of too much on our plate but multitasking behavior actually raises our stress levels; it increases the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in our bloodstream. And this kind of behavior is also hugely correlated with impulsiveness and low self-control.
It turns out that what we’re doing is not training our minds to spread far and wide, we’re training ourselves to become distracted.
Now even with all of that I’m not here today to tell you to stop multitasking because you can’t; you won’t. But what you can do and what I hope you will do is consider how you want to manage and protect the precious resource of your own conscious attention.
Because we know from neuroscience that our conscious attention gives us access to three basic skills. Attention can help us seek out new information. Attention can help us sort between streams of information that are competing for our focus. And attention can help us stay with the stuff that feels important.
Now all I’m suggesting is that you get plenty of exercise with the seeking and the sorting just by being alive in New York City today. But the place where we struggle, the spot where we often stumble is with the skill of staying put with the stuff that’s important to us.
And if you’ve ever been in a conversation with someone you really care about found just reaching for your phone for no good reason, you know what that struggle is like.
Now the good news is there are actually tons of ways that we can train the mind to sit and stay. But one of my favorite… and perhaps one of the oldest is the practice of mindfulness.
Now mindfulness is kind of in its pop-culture moment right now. It’s on the cover of magazines; it’s in Super Bowl commercials; it’s in Fortune 500 boardrooms all over the place. But mindfulness is not a mystical way of being. You don’t have to be a monk or a millionaire. Very simply, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment on purpose with an attitude of non-judgment.
We’re paying attention to the present moment in mindfulness because we know that’s where so much of our happiness happens. And when we can pay attention to the present moment on purpose, then we’re becoming a little less creatures of circumstance and a little bit more creatures of choice.
And when we can do all that with an attitude of non-judgment, well I think that’s where something really special starts to take place. Because one of the side effects of having conscious attention that is inherently limited is that our minds get really good at making really quick evaluations and then jumping to the next big thing. I like it, what’s next? I don’t like it; what’s next? Oh my God, I am speaking in a room in front of 200 people. Oh my God, it’s a TED talk; what’s next, what’s next, what’s next.
In the process the mind becomes a really good storyteller and we tend to get kind of tangled up in our own stories. But in a mindfulness practice we’re trying to get more interested in what the present moment has to say for itself and a little bit less caught up in what we have to say about it.
And we find that when we can do that, when we can make a little space around our own stories, we’re actually making space for the stories of others. So we see in the research around mindfulness and meditation that people who take up a practice like this have an increased sense of social connection, greater access to compassion, an altruistic behavior.
Some of the most recent research is suggesting that mindfulness and meditation practices can actually help reduce implicit bias and decrease discriminatory behavior, makes us more open and available to the world around us, and whatever vision we might have for how that world can unfold.
So I’d like us to do with the time that we have left right now is to give it a try. So please make yourself comfortable in your seat. You might already be but if you want to adjust in any way you can, see if you can find a seat that allows you to feel relaxed but alert. If you like you can close your eyes or just settle your gaze somewhere still.
Let’s start by taking a deep breath in, letting it go with a sigh. Good let’s do that one more time. Deep breath in, like you could gather up the whole day and then just let it go.
Now as much as you can, just let your breath breathe all on its own. Your body knows how to do this and you don’t have to micromanage it. So you don’t have to make your breath bigger or longer or better, just let it breathe, and ask your attention to be with your breathing. You don’t have to describe or analyze; you don’t have to remember.
As much as you can, just breathe and feel. If you do this, sooner or later, probably sooner, your mind is going to wander. When it does, it’s not a problem. This is actually where all of the exercise and all the benefit of this practice takes place.
So when your mind wanders, when you can, ask it to come back to the feeling of your breathing. As it comes in and out… maybe your mind wanders many times. After all breathe about 15 breaths a minute tallies up to maybe 20,000 breaths in a day, so maybe this particular breath doesn’t seem like such a big deal.
But if you can keep coming back to the feeling of your breathing happening right here and now, you might start to notice things you could not see before: sensations underneath other sensations; feelings behind other feeling.
If it helps, consider this. As you breathe in and out right now, the air that comes into your lungs touches a surface area folded up inside you and if you were to spread it out flap, the surface area of your lungs would be about half the size of an Olympic tennis court. It’s folded up inside you right now as you breathe in.
And now every time you breathe in, the oxygen that you inhale enters into a network of blood vessels so intricate and vast that if you were to thread it together into a single string, that string would be 60,000 miles long, would wrap around the earth two and a half times, it’s wrapped up inside you right now.
And every time you breathe in, 37 trillion cells in your body take in the things they need. And every time you breathe out they let go of the things they don’t need. It’s impossible to comprehend but you know what that feels like? It feels like this: breathing in and breathing out. Breathing in and breathing out.
Take a deep inhale, let it go.
You can open your eyes. Thank you for paying attention.