Be there in a minute… Reflections on mindfulness and ADHD.


09 Jan
09Jan

Be there in a minute…

Over the past week I have overheard myself ruminating on the death of Richard Alpert, spiritual teacher, psychologist, and author of the seminal book “Be Here Now.”   I remember the first time I heard that suggestion, “Be Here Now.”  It was so simple and direct.  Rather than being completely consumed by hurt feelings or some  fantastical scheme or even my headache, “Be Here Now”, invited me to simply be present in this moment.

Be Here Now!

In many ways this is what the neurotypical world is always asking from those of us with ADHD. Stop playing that video game and pay attention! Right? Over the past 35 years since first hearing, “Be Here Now,” I have practiced meditation almost every day, and this practice has deeply influenced the course of my life.   No matter how intense the world may become, bill collectors at the door, children screaming at each other, humiliation and betrayal, each morning I go to my cushion -- and for a moment -- return to the simple grace of being alive.

I was teaching at Landmark College, around the turn of the century, when I first started hearing the educational psychology folks chirping about “mindfulness” as a treatment for ADHD.  Southern Vermont is a hotbed of New Age enthusiasm, so we set up relaxation spaces and began to offer Yoga and Tia Chi, excited for this new approach to fix all the broken people. The years since have seen a proliferation of empirical studies suggesting the benefits of mindfulness, and generally it has been accepted that meditation is beneficial to adults with ADHD (Mitchell, McIntyre, English, 2017).  However, the effects were not so clear for children. One study, conducted in 2012, “The Effectiveness of Mindfulness Training for Children with ADHD and Mindful Parenting for their Parents,” suggested that although the parents and the students reported positive results from the mindfulness practices, they could measure no improvement in ADHD symptoms on teacher-completed rating scales.

This raises an interesting question, why do the children and parents feel a positive impact that is not appreciable by teachers? I believe this clearly captures the neurotypical school system’s complete misunderstanding of this genetic trait we call ADHD.

It stands to reason: If mindfulness is the effort to stay present, “Be Here Now,” we imagine that mental attention or “focus” is like a muscle that one can strengthen with exercise. Alfred E. Orage’s 1930 book, “Psychological Exercises”, offers page after page of exercises precisely aimed at that – count to one hundred by sevens, alternate counting up to 100 by 3s and down from 100 by 4s and such.  So why doesn’t this strengthened attention help in school? Some researchers have chosen to question the effectiveness of mindfulness, suggesting the benefits are only "self reported." Still, I think this data challenges the popular understanding of attention. We call it a deficit of attention, so we assume that more attention will fix the problem. 

In my experience mindfulness practice has very little to do with the monkey-brain attention so highly valued in our education system. From the perspective of true mindfulness, even the most organized and highly accomplished neurotypical is attentionally deficient. In the ancient practice of mindfulness -- the ordinary talking mind is just a “stray dog,” some poorly tuned mechanistic part of a much larger mind. 

The Russian mathematician and mystic, Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii,  proposed an exercise that  illustrates my point.  Some time when you are bored, sit in front of some form of timepiece -- a watch, a clock, a stopwatch or even an app on your phone, something that tells time, preferably with seconds.  Now challenge yourself to hold your attention on the timepiece for as long as you can.  As you time yourself, you must not let your mind wander for even one second. As soon as the mind wanders, try again. How long can you hold it?  Can you hold your attention on one thing for an entire minute?  Is it painful? The frailty of the ordinary attention is common to humanity. We are all deficient before the universal silence.

Most introductory meditation practices ask one to focus on a simple sensation in the moment, the fabric of your shirt on your belly as breath moves in and out, or just follow the out breath – focus on something here in this moment. Then as you notice that you have been swept away in thought, return to the breath.  Beginners may think the point is to stretch the ordinary attention, but that is not my experience. Each time I return to this moment, it comes as the result of having seen that my thoughts have wandered -- the car needs gas, what will I do when I stop meditating, how do dragons blow out candles?  In my experience, the goal is not to stretch the painful attention -- the watch exercise; rather, mindfulness suggests an attention that can include the mind as it wanders. Whatever you call it, self-awareness, chi, god -- it appears in a flash, a much greater, new attention, a silent acceptance that can include the whole of myself. 

Nevertheless, in thirty five years of meditation practice, I have not gotten any better at the things that used to piss off my teachers in school. I still lose my hat. I still blurt out perspectives that most neurotypicals can’t follow. I still get restless trying to listen to the linear nonsense neurotypicals find so comforting, so I make inappropriate jokes in meetings. However, as I have gained experience with meditation, I have come to a greater acceptance of myself as I am.  Where I used to be so ashamed of my “broken” mind, I have come to really value what I am.  I will never be neurotypical, but at moments I find a new acceptance and calm within my feelings. I can be myself -- a self who is easily bored by neurotypical structures.  

But here is the difficulty. Neurotypical education still views my mind as broken, a problem that needs to be fixed, but that is not the truth.  What we call ADHD is a hereditary neurological variation. Having a parent, uncle or grandmother with ADHD is just as predictive, as height or eye color. In my opinion the structure of education -- all of the embedded neurotypical assumptions of “normal” and “behavior” and “the real world” -- all of that is the problem.  Much of the suffering I go to my cushion to confront -- the shame, and fear, and self-hatred -- stems directly from the trauma of grade school. I suspect it was this fundamental misunderstanding that prevented the neurotypical teachers from perceiving the benefits in their students mindfulness studies.  They do not care if we can feel relaxed within ourselves; they just want us to sit still, shut up and pay attention:

Be Here Now!

So from now on, when I feel the demand from some aggressive neurotypical to pay attention!  Stop daydreaming!  Get back to work! Rather than throw myself at their mercy, prostrating myself in anguish, as I learned in school, my aim is to stop, return to myself and say, “Yes. I will be there in a minute.”

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