Multi-tasking, meditation and motherhood

I am currently growing a small human, raising two other young humans and keeping our household operating on a fairly even keel. When I make time, I write this blog – it not only keeps my mind ticking over, but somehow the tap tap tapping of the keyboard and outpouring of words keeps me sane. But on top of my writing, one other goal I have is to learn to meditate, properly.

A favourite mental refuge - calm blue ocean. Photo - Jessica Podzebenko

As a busy, overthinking Mum, my mind tends to jump all over the place and juggle a number of largely mundane tasks all at once. To keep all the plates spinning, I’ve always regarded multi-tasking as an essential way to get through the day. But rather than being some sort of holy grail, here’s the thing – multi-tasking is a myth.

Instead of doing several tasks simultaneously, all our brain does is switch rapidly from one task to another and back again. This process is inefficient and not good for us – it takes more time, wastes productivity and depletes energy while also raising stress levels. Over time, the brain changes and paying attention to anything deeply for a long time becomes difficult.

Because we all live in such a busy, overstimulated world these days, our brains are working overtime. The answer is to stop pretending we can multi-task, slow our minds down, and try to focus on one thing at a time – something meditation teaches us.

Meditation has come in and out of my life over the years like a passing fad. I recall tottering off to the sick bay at school for lunchtime ‘relaxation’ sessions. It was easy back then to switch off - little did I know that my mind would take on a life of its own and become a slightly annoying beast decades on.

I have CDs with various wind-chime style meditations, books teaching me how to meditate, and I have dabbled in meditation as part of yoga over the years. Yet for all this, I have struggled to define what mediation is without resorting to Google.

Ganges River, India - you would be hard pressed to find a more spiritual place to meditate in the world. Photo - Emily Winstone.

Meditation, and its cousin mindfulness, are ancient concepts that are bandied about a lot these days – often loosely, but they pervade modern society as much as organic kale does in a health food store. From where I sit, these concepts are the subject of corporate recruitment pitches (Google boasts its own meditation room in Sydney), professional stress management and ‘wellbeing’ initiatives worldwide.

So what exactly is meditation and why all the fuss over it? I admit to being no expert on the subject, but one definition that seems to ring true with me describes meditation as “the practice of turning your attention to a single point of reference. It can involve focusing on the breath, on bodily sensations, or on a word or phrase known as a mantra…meditation means turning your attention away from distracting thoughts and focusing on the present moment”.

By practising meditation, we can train our minds to re-direct our attention and choose not to react to unhelpful thoughts. I like to think of meditation as being able to bring your mind back to where you want it to be – to harness a wandering mind.

Knock-on effects are better control of our reactions to thoughts and improved ability to focus on one thing at a time and be present - the essence of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a process of awareness, involving paying attention to experience in the moment instead of being consumed by thought. Meditation is one tool to develop mindfulness skills, but it’s not the only way.

As warm and fluffy as this all may sound, meditating effectively is not easy. And I am the first to admit that I am rubbish at sticking to any ritual or routine, except that of a morning coffee.

So when my coach strongly encouraged me to try to meditate every day for 30 days, I was both apprehensive and excited at the challenge. To help me, I naturally went straight to the App Store and downloaded a fancy new app – ‘Headspace’ – and stuck a little chart to complete on my fridge, next to my 4 year old’s star chart. Andy’s voice on Headspace was soothing and dinky animations explain meditation in between sessions. He really is quite calming to listen to, practical and not at all hippie-like or annoying (which suits me). I like the way training the mind is described as being about changing the relationship we with have with our thoughts. The aim is to learn to view them with more perspective, rather than needing to stop or change them. What naturally follows is a place of calm.

Photo - Wix

But to be frank, I found the task blimin’ hard. I started off at the beginners level on Headspace with 10 minute meditations – 10 minutes of undivided attention on me, a long time in my world. So long that I am not ashamed to admit that at times, I would open one eye mid-meditation and reach for my phone to check how long I had left… This mediation thing clearly wasn’t working. But like any new skill, it takes regular practice and commitment.

At that point, I was reassured to hear my coach tell me that 10 minutes for a beginner is indeed a stretch. So I re-set my goal to 2 minutes per day. Just 2 minutes of lying down, focusing on my breath and letting thoughts go in and out of my mind.

So how am I going now? I still find it hard to meditate daily as a habit. Mornings are difficult because I wake up to my son at my pillow saying ‘I can’t find Lightning McQueen’ and hate waking up earlier, and by bedtime, I am so tired that I need little relaxation to fall asleep. But I do my best to meditate before bed and am slowly improving at quietening my mind. I no longer listen to Andy, but instead focus on my breath for 2 minutes until my iPhone alarm goes off.

Some of you may scoff and say ‘how hard that can be’ – and I take my hat off to you. But for those with a tendency to overthink and worry like me, it’s important to understand that your mind doesn’t have to be empty, just aware. You let thoughts come and go, and bring your attention back to your breath.

Photo - Wix

Over time, I hope that these small steps will enable me to reap the benefits of meditation, which, done frequently, helps us see the world around us more clearly and be more patient and relaxed. My 4 year old will thank me for it. Meditation helps relieve anxiety and depression, and improve attention, concentration and general psychological well-being.

Regular meditation can also have positive neurological impacts - it can change the way our brains work, and better preserves our brain. By focusing on certain thoughts, we can influence the connections in the brain and the way we feel. We can train ourselves to think happy thoughts. The science is fascinating and motivates me to keep practising.

For me as a Mum, I am sold – I would dearly love to be more present and calmer with my children, stop stealing glances at my iPhone mid-writing this blog and focus on one thing at a time instead of muddling along, half-dealing with the unpredictable, daily demands which fire at me like a scatter-gun.

But it doesn’t happen over night, it is a practice that takes time. What is clear is that tools learnt in meditation to bring your mind back to your breath, to a mantra, to the sound of Andy on Headspace - all help us be more mindful. And the science behind the benefits, both for our wellbeing now and in the future is irrefutable. The jury is still out on my progress, but I know the ticks on my star chart are filling up.

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