Dr. Jamie Ho is a low vision and neuro-rehabilitation optometrist in the Nashville area and one of the brightest people I know. She once instructed me to take breaks from writing, to step back from close-up work at the computer and relax my visual attention by gazing at objects far away. That wise prescription came at a time when my eyes had been blurring from many hours of daily writing. Looking at a screen inches away required more effort and coordination than gazing at a distance. Dr. Ho understands ADHD and has helped children with attention disorders through visual training. What she knows about visual attention applies to attention in general. We can practice directing our attention with intention.
Here’s one example. Getting started on dreaded tasks can seem difficult, and we avoid them. We would rather be in a focused state with stimulating activity than in an open state with a less preferred task. To start and sustain effort on dreaded tasks is easier than you think. Dreading may be the only problem.
Most dreaded tasks require little selective attention, meaning we can relax when we do them. Think of them as a break, allowing you to disengage from the close-up picture and relax into a bigger and softer picture. With softer attention, you will be more aware of other priorities, time, people, your pets, and your physical space. As a bonus, you will appear less selfish to your partner. You can engage in dreaded tasks with ease, listening to your favorite music or remaining silent to be aware of your negative thoughts. When you color your tasks black, they will be dark. They will be lighter when you lighten up.
What comprises a dreaded task anyway? Is it one that takes you away from a preferred activity? Don’t you just love to be intensely focused on your favorite things? Me too! I can deny, as easily as any adult with ADHD, that I need breaks from intense focus (In fact, I need one now, and I’m going to walk my dog in fifteen minutes).
Dreaded tasks may actually require less effort than stimulating tasks, but we continue believing they’re harder and take more time than they do. When we learn to see such notions as the mindless thoughts they are, it’s easier to redirect our attention. Then we can seamlessly tackle them and get them done more quickly. Dreading wastes time and consumes energy.
One way to break through your illusions is by training your brain through meditation. When you’re too close to your habitual thoughts (they’re right there in your brain), you don’t see them. Your head is under water where you see nothing but what’s near your face. When habitual thoughts take the lead, you mindlessly follow them. I’ve done that more often than I wish to admit. On the other hand, when you relax and step back from your thoughts, you can let them be. No effort is required in letting them be. Relaxing is easier than trying. You don’t have to try not to have…or try not to believe…your thoughts. Seeing them and lightening up is enough. As always, I welcome your comments.
In my August 20 meditation workshop for adults with ADHD and anxiety, we will discuss and practice alternatives to your habitual thinking that limits your potential to live with wise effort and mindful intention.
Don’t even try…just do it. The only hard part is starting. Sustaining a routine is hard only if you continue believing your thought that it’s hard. It’s like physical exercise. You’re less motivated to exercise when you’re out of shape, but once you’re in shape, exercise is easy. Put meditation on your schedule and work other obligations around it.
You already know how to focus. You’re a hawk when engaged in stimulating or urgent activity, but where does the time go when you do that? Time doesn’t travel; it’s your open awareness that goes away. You’re probably focused too much of the time…and too often on activity that is not a priority. Your difficulty noticing your brain-lock, and then expanding your awareness, may be a bigger challenge than you realized.
Here’s another point about mindfulness. You may believe you can’t possibly sit and do nothing but breathe. Does the idea of it seem too boring to imagine? What if boredom is nothing more than intolerance of restless feelings? If you continued sitting with restless feelings, you would be tolerating them, right? The thought that you can’t tolerate sitting quietly is only a thought. It’s as empty of substance as the empty cup that held your coffee this morning.
To meditate, you have to be willing to protect time for practice and get close to your experience (feelings, thoughts, life situations), regardless of discomfort. Uncomfortable feelings and situations are often the most useful ones in a meditation practice. They help us realize that discomfort doesn’t harm us. If you’re a little anxious before speaking in front of an audience, welcome to reality. Most of us carry some anxiety into public speaking. It’s not abnormal. You don’t have to rid yourself of discomfort to speak. But when you worry about uncomfortable feelings, you create more of them. The most debilitating part of anxiety is anticipating it. Put simply, being anxious about becoming anxious does not reduce anxiety.
Mindfulness is not about stopping thoughts or changing feelings, but observing them without judgment. It’s not about focusing your attention, but re-directing it. You can learn to reset your attention and change how you relate to uncomfortable feelings through practice, just like you can strengthen your muscles by working out routinely.
I will be leading an in-person workshop for adults with ADHD and/or anxiety Saturday, August 20, 2022 at Nashville Friends House. For details, return to the home page of my website to view the flyer.
I was uncertain in my young adult years about what career path to take after college. My dad suggested I think long and hard about what I wanted to do. Be your own boss, he said; don’t work for anyone else. He would not have been successful as a career counselor, but he was a successful owner of a family business.
Young adults with ADHD believe they ought to know what to do to earn a living once they have completed their academic work. Those who do are fortunate, but I doubt they are in the majority.
If you are not figuring it out, you may think there is something wrong. You may feel overwhelmed, and you may be getting anxious and depressed, as your less ambivalent peers are moving seamlessly into their careers. I changed career paths so often in the early years that my resume signaled to employers, “Don’t hire me…I’ll be gone in a year.” You can avoid the problems I created. Here’s my suggestion.
Get out of your head rather than further into it. Don’t think long and hard. There are career aptitude programs, like The Highlands Ability Battery, “a journey of self-discovery” ( http://highlandsco.com). There are other assessment tools, career counselors, life coaches, and ADHD coaches. Spinning inside your head is less useful than getting out of your head. Invite other heads to join yours in support of your efforts. Getting professional help is easier and more effective than overwhelming yourself with such a big and important mission. Don’t hurt yourself. Help yourself to available support so you can live well with your ADHD
Artists are often told by well-meaning parents to have a back-up plan. Maybe that’s good advice. Ellis Marsallis is said to have told his three sons, all successful jazz musicians, NOT to have a back-up plan. He thought it would inhibit their efforts to succeed as artists. And Mr. Marsallis modeled for them what wise effort looks like.
It can be a good idea to follow your passion. If you are stimulated by the activity of your work, that stimulation may be as useful as stimulant medication. Perhaps more useful. I welcome your comments and suggestions for your ADHD peers.
Some folks with ADHD think they’re not smart, not creative, not productive, not motivated…not, not, not…fill in the blank. If this is how you think, maybe you should stop thinking about yourself so much and end your relationship with this incompetent slug. You probably don’t label others as harshly as you label yourself. Judging the self obstructs us from proceeding into action. It’s a building block for constructing a negative reality.
Some folks with ADHD think they’re smarter, more creative, and more productive than they are, and they want others to acknowledge their gifts. They feel entitled to rewards despite insufficient effort. If this is how you think, maybe you should stop thinking about yourself so much. You can detach from delusions of brilliance and stop blaming the dimwits who don’t recognize your talent. You probably wouldn’t grant unearned recognition to others. If you can forget the self, you can find a way to sustain effort and accomplish something worthwhile.
Both of these descriptions are consistent with my early adult life experiences. I was a brilliant failure, unappreciated by magazine editors and music publishers who only published junk. I was failing to learn from failure, and I was failing to appreciate that incremental successes are building blocks for constructing a positive reality. Even later in life, I was both an accomplished writer who published a book and a fraud who wrote only one book.
Here’s a two-part solution to these obstructive habits:
- Forget the self who is doing, or not doing, and just do. Evaluating the self is less important than evaluating performance. Forgetting your horrible or brilliant self allows room for failing and learning from it. You’re not who you think you are anyway.
- Know when to pause doing, and embrace being. You don’t have to think of who you are in order to be who you are.
In the 1960’s, Beverly Bruan (1930-2010) hosted a children’s TV program called “Romper Room.” Dressed like a bee and holding up the frame of a mirror, she taught kids to be a “Do Bee” and not a “Don’t Bee.”
I invite your comments. How have you been limited by notions of self? How have you learned to live well with your ADHD or other neurological difference?
How often have you asked, “Where did the time go?” Let me illustrate the opposite of inattention, the problem of too much selective attention.
Time doesn’t go anywhere, but our attention goes somewhere. Where does yours go when you lose track of time? My bet is that it goes too deeply into what is in front of you in the moment. Too much selective attention is often misperceived as inattention. A better way to frame this common problem for individuals with ADHD is loss of open awareness. When your attention is so locked up on one thing, you loose awareness of other things, like time, other priorities, and other people. Nothing exists in the present moment except what is right in front of you. A Zen-like state sounds attractive, but there’s a down-side. A broader awareness is no less important. You may need to practice stepping back from the task at hand and not just to zoom in, but also zoom out.
Mindfulness practices can increase your awareness of where you are directing your attention. In an open state of awareness, you are intentionally choosing not to zoom in on any one thing, but remaining open, flexible, and in a relaxed state of awareness. A good analogy is when you stop reading and focus your visual attention on the room you’re in, or if you’re outside, observing objects at a distance, like the tops of trees or the sky beyond them.
When you meditate with open awareness, rather than focusing your attention exclusively on your breath, you’re allowing input from sounds, sites, and sensations of all kinds in the moment…even thoughts. You are allowing your mind to take in more, but without a running narrative about what you’re noticing. You’re simply noticing from one moment to the next what is entering and leaving your awareness.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting there is less value in learning to zoom in on the task at hand with your undivided attention. To activate selective attention is to begin and sustain your focus and effort. It’s just that your attention can get too locked up.
If you are at risk of losing awareness of time, priorities, and other people in your life, you may need more than a strategy. You are likely to forget strategies when you’re in a state of selective attention. Don’t forget your forgetfulness! You may need to use a tool, like an alarm that you can set to go off incrementally while focusing exclusively on one task. The alarm can remind you to step back for a moment, look at the clock, and then proceed, pause, or revisit your list of priorities.
When writing my book, I stared at a small laptop screen for hours at a time. It was blurring my vision. My optometrist told me to take frequent breaks and go outside to relax my vision by looking at distant objects. Looking at something up close for too long requires binocular effort, using both eyes together. It strained the muscles that helped me focus up close. It’s not good to focus up close for too long. Thanks to Dr. Jamie Ho, I began learning ways to open up my visual attention, and then apply the same advice to general attention.
My father was born a century ago on March 10, 1922. I knelt at his grave on this bright and sunny Thursday afternoon, and I cried from deep down in my gut. It was not a sad cry, but one of joy and gratitude. Nothing brings tears to my eyes as easily as being on the receiving end of kindness, or observing someone’s act of kindness toward another. I observed my dad’s kindness for many years. He gave away all he had in his giant love cup, and it came back to him in infinite refills.
Glenn was a model for what a man could be: selfless, authentic, generous, responsible, confident, and playful. He was intrigued by the minds of children. When they entered his orbit, they saw a grownup who could talk their language, and they could make him laugh. He knew that joy and suffering co-exist. He comforted hundreds of people grieving their losses and gave food to people who had no way to pay for it. He took care of my mother through her pain, depression, and dementia. Being her caregiver was nothing more than what a committed partner does, in sickness and in health. That was his way.
My father was incapable of hate. He was more easily hurt than angered. I was a budding teenager bagging groceries one day at our neighborhood market when a customer entered and walked straight to the check-out counter, assaulting my dad with harsh words. This blustering bully had inherited his wealth, while my dad had grown up in a farm family that ate the food they grew. The man feasted on my father while I struggled to relax my fists, and then my dad wished him a good day. I knew he meant it. He wanted no one to suffer, including those who caused suffering.
Like Vincent Van Gough, my father never thought of himself as special. Van Gogh once wrote in a letter to his brother that his mission in life was to show the world what the world looks like through the eyes of an ordinary person. My dad’s habitual response to being praised was humble. “All glory to God,” he would say. He didn’t wish to be glorified, like I’m doing now. He taught his two sons a simple lesson about comportment. We were to live a life of value to family and community and make no big deal about it. I continued to hear stories of his generosity long after he died, stories he never told me.
Dan Hicks wrote a song called, “How Can I Miss You When You Won’t Go Away?” I don’t miss my father because he won’t go away; he’s always with me. He saw my missteps and never abandoned me. Whenever I pass his compassion forward, I want to say, “Glory to Glenn.” Dad was a high school drop-out who co-founded two social service organizations and helped a segregated Black community convert a neighborhood school building into a community center. What is so remarkable to me about those actions was that they were no big deal to him. He simply wanted to do those things and wanted them to be a big deal only to people who benefited from the services. I know because I lived with him. His orientation to life was my inspiration to become a social worker.
To you, my gentle father, may you forever rest in the peace you’ve given me and many others. May all who knew your kindness and compassion keep passing it along. And to all who missed out on having a nurturing father, may you find the love and respect you deserve. We are one big family, and everyone belongs.
Why focus on deficits at the expense of strengths? Professionals too often observe adults with ADHD through a neurotypical lens, intending to “help us” become normal, to become like most people. But extraordinary people don’t aspire to be like most people. Excessive focus on change is insulting and can inhibit us. Is it enough just to have your head above water?
Here’s an exercise: Think for a moment about your brain as an amphibious creature, capable of living in water or on land. It can swim with aquatics and walk with terrestrials, without the limitations of either. Would you prefer normal to being amphibious? There are many high achievers with ADHD, and they didn’t aspire to be like everyone else. They’re not normal.
If you are content being terrestrial, that’s okay. You can still achieve your goals and enjoy your life. If you want to aim higher, you might challenge the paradigm that you must first become “normal.” I once told a 15-year-old that I admired how he thinks outside the box. He replied, “I consider thinking outside the box to be an in-the-box concept.” He explained that being placed either inside or outside the box was limiting.
Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hann (1926-2022) once helped a group of U.S. combat veterans who were struggling with PTSD, some with episodes of rage. He began by telling the veterans that they were “like the hot tip of a burning candle” and had the potential to change the world. There was potential in their energy.
You don’t have to change the world or become wealthy to live well. Donald Horn is an extraordinary nature photographer whom I encountered one day in a local state park. I asked if he might be publishing a book of photographs, creating a calendar, or working for a magazine. He replied, “I just like taking pictures.” He told me how to find his photos on Facebook. He brings joy to many followers who view his prolific art for free.
You might believe you are aiming too high when you are aiming too low. Instead of asking yourself, who am I to think I could (fill in the blank)?, you can ask, why not? What is a deficit anyway? Impulsiveness can help you activate, defiance can help you aim higher, and hyper-focusing can help you sustain effort. Years ago, I would have given up after exhausting my first book outline with only ten typed pages. My outline did not represent a book-length idea. Who did I think I was, believing I’m a writer? Then I found my defiant energy, disregarded the negative voice, wrote another outline, and got my book published.
I believe most adults with ADHD see limits more easily than strengths. For me, evidence often pointed in both directions, to capability and to lacking it. Believing the negative evidence was a mental habit that obstructed me. I believed I was deficient. I didn’t respect my strengths or consider that I could cultivate the very strengths I needed.
Self-doubt is a waste of energy and time. The science on habits shows that we can develop new ones to counter old ones. Simply starting inhibits the negative mental chatter. Take a leap of faith. Silence the negative chatter by getting started. It’s time.
I look forward to reading your comments.
I used to shop on Christmas Eve. I preferred last minute shopping when crowds had subsided and clearance sales had begun. That was before my ADHD diagnosis. I was shopping with my tribe and didn’t know it. Less overwhelmed in a half-empty mall than at home, the inattentives were in no hurry. Christmas Eve shopping was uncomplicated with reduced inventory and less competition with other shoppers.
The hyperactives were the frenzied shoppers, in and out of stores in a flash. They were singleminded and annoyed at anyone in their way. They risked the lives of other drivers on their way back home. They were more afraid on December 24 of disappointing their spouses than they were on December 23.
Redundant Christmas melodies played in every store, repeating the “sounding joy.” The music became unbearable, motivating me to stop dawdling and finish shopping. The power nap in my car in the mall parking lot always restored peace and good will. A phone call from my wife encouraged me to start my car, and I would measure the urgency in her voice when she asked, “Where are you?”
How can meditation help you if it is not a tool to improve your attention? And why are professionals so reluctant to use the word, meditation?
I hear it all the time. Call it mindfulness; don’t call it meditation. Don’t call it mindfulness; call it mindful awareness. If you call it meditation, people will think you are prescribing a religion. My impulse is to shout: Just be quiet and sit! Don’t worry about the label!
I’m not ordained, certified, or sanctioned as a meditation teacher. I have only practiced and studied meditation for more than half my life, and I’m still no expert; I’m not trying to be. But I have something to say about the relationship between practicing awareness and practicing mindlessness. If you are in the ADHD familly, you have more experience with one of those practices than the other, and you can guess which one.
Practicing awareness is a thing in itself, but if you practice to attain some unattainable goal, like stopping your thoughts, you will get stuck on a perpetual carousel. The end of thinking will happen involuntarily when you die; so don’t be in such a hurry to get there.
Dr. Daniel Siegel has demonstrated that individuals with ADHD who practice mindful awareness show a reduction in ADHD symptoms to a degree that rivals medication. In a webinar I attended, he told a story about telling his colleagues, who asked what medications his research subjects were taking, to “substitute a t for the c.” He was telling them to substitute meditation for medication. That doesn’t mean meditation is a tool to fix a broken brain. Practicing awareness is simply the opposite of practicing mindlessness.
When you practice anything persistently enough, new habits start to form. But when you try turning awareness into a tool, you will be constantly evaluating if the tool is working. If you become even more aware of your mindlessness by meditating, you might conclude that meditation is not working. Then you may assume you are doing something wrong. Sitting with awareness of what your brain is doing, even when it is wandering, is not doing something wrong.
What if you discovered, when meditating, that you are perpetually evaluating yourself and questioning your competence and your worth, even questioning whether you are meditating correctly? Would you be practicing awareness? I say, yes indeed. You would be observing the activity of your brain. Imagine that you have observed your wandering mental activity often enough that you are tired of bothering yourself about it. At that moment, you might choose to give up practicing because you have a lot of experience with giving up. But what would happen if you stopped bothering yourself about your wandering mind? Perhaps you would begin seeing a layer of self-defeating thought (the judgment that your mind should not be wandering) for what it is. You are watching the movie of your self-critical mind, one that judges constantly. If you are watching the judgment without judgment, your are practicing simple awareness.
I have been on a mission for years to encourage adults with ADHD to practice a more accepting and compassionate attitude. You probably wouldn’t tell an anxious friend to stop worrying about their worrying when they have every reason to be worried about a significant health issue. You would be kind to your friend. So why are you so unfriendly to yourself? One plausible reason is that you have a long history of being judged, and you have adopted self-criticism as a pre-emptive strategy. You would rather experience, and maybe even express, your shortcomings than be criticized by others who are better than you, which is most people. Does that have a familiar ring? Or maybe you do the opposite; you know better than everyone else, and you don’t care what anyone thinks. But if you really don’t care, why do you protest? I believe those two responses, self-deprecation and narcissistic thinking, are flip sides of the same coin.
So, if you think you cannot meditate, simply because your mind wanders a lot, what good would it do to watch your brain wander, much less engage in the boring task of bringing your awareness back to the present moment again and again? My answer is simple. You can do that. The only hard part is doing it without judging anything. That is what enlightenment is…turning up the lights to see what’s happening inside and outside of your brain. The idea of the brain observing the brain is complex, for sure, but simple awareness is simple.
Observing self-defeating mental habits demystifies the habits. Your mind wandered, so what? When you watch the stream of wandering thoughts and interrupt the stream by labeling it, “thinking,” you are stepping back from the content of your thoughts. You are letting them be. As you continue to sit with gentle awareness, you just might discover some relief from mindlessness, if only for seconds at a time. You cannot run a marathon tomorrow, but you can always start where you are.
The goal is just to sit and be aware, not to gain from sitting. If you feel you can only sit for two minutes at a time, and that you must get up and pace before resuming, just continue to sit with the notion that you cannot tolerate restless feelings. When you continue to sit, you are tolerating the thought instead of believing it and letting it control you. It is that simple. You just have show up and practice.
Awareness is a thing in itself. You might even meditate with some approximation of that sentence, like, “Awareness just is.”
If there is a goal in my meditation practice, it is only to put my rear end on the cushion or chair and practice. When my judging self recedes into the background, my awareness comes to the foreground.
Awareness finds us; we don’t find it.
October is ADHD Awareness Month. You might not have realized October was approaching until September 30…not yet October. Remember that we live in just two time zones, “now and not now.”
I wish you a great month, from October 1 to Halloween. The weather is great this time of year for most of us. Spend some time meditating and exercising outdoors. Take a mindful walk and just notice what you see and hear, like my Pyrenees-Beagle does every morning.
Do what you can to stimulate your brain’s dopamine naturally. Take medicine if you need it, but don’t think it’s all you need. John Lennon was wrong when he said, “All you need is love.” Love is never enough, and medicine is not all you need to live well with ADHD.
If you have a marriage partner, consider attending my 3-hour Saturday workshop for couples on October 30. Also, Melissa Orlov, author of The ADHD Effect on Marriage, is beginning a new round of her courses for couples in October (https://www.adhdmarriage.com).
There are many non-medical resources for adults with ADHD these days. It is a large menu. Check out my resources page and Melissa Orlov’s.
I promise to continue my efforts to advocate for us and educate the public about what ADHD is and what it’s not; and who we are and who we’re not. And I will continue to challenge my ADHD peers, as I challenge myself, to take charge of living responsibly with it. We do best when we understand our neurological difference, accept the effects of ADHD in our daily lives, and acknowledge its effects on people we love.
Embrace every moment. Put as much effort into becoming mindfully present in each moment as you would put into your favorite pastime. Otherwise you will just pass time, and you will never get that time back. My personal best resource for living well with ADHD is daily meditation. Dr. Daniel Siegel, author of The Mindful Brain, says substitute a t for the c (meditation for medication). Meditation has been proven to enhance executive functioning. But I would add that you should not dismiss medication if you haven’t tried it. Either or both can enhance the quality of your life.
During this year’s ADHD Awareness month, consider how you might raise awareness in your community about the realities of ADHD. Encourage someone you know who may need professional support, or advocate for a young person with the disorder whose parents or teachers may not see the card that’s missing from the deck.
Let’s celebrate our strengths all month and beyond. Accept that the natural inhibiting features of our brains are inhibited. Put simply, our brains don’t easily inhibit our surplus of selective attention, speech, or behavior. But being uninhibited is not all bad. Know your strengths and use them. Acknowledge your weaknesses and be open to feedback no matter how uncomfortable. Express gratitude to those who are willing to be honest with us, and don’t judge their intentions. Accept that you may tend to see obstacles more easily than possibilities. Keep a beginner’s mind. In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few” (Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki).