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).
In my last blog I highlighted what is normal about impatience. I demonstrated how lightening up about the rise of uncomfortable feelings helps inhibit impulsively acting on them. There is more to cultivating patience. Judgmental thinking…including judgment about your impatience…can interfere with learning a few things about yourself. Being open to the unreliability of self-talk can help. The greater your arousal, the more likely your narrative will be distorted, and the more likely you will believe your story line. Certainty that a person or a situation caused your abrupt emotional shift can lead to suffering.
You brain will direct your attention immediately toward any assumed source of sudden discomfort. Your first impulse will be to stop what you think caused the feeling. The self-protective instinct is a natural function of a normal brain. The instinct is not a problem; acting mindlessly is.
Have you ever noticed how your perspective often changes once you have calmed down? Years ago I was sitting at a stop light at a busy intersection, waiting to turn right toward home. A small truck opposite me ran the red light and headed in my direction, barely missing other drivers already in the intersection who were honking their horns at this reckless driver. I was outraged that he was endangering lives. He proceeded into the intersection from his turn lane. Instead of making a full left turn, he angled toward the corner of a Shell service station twenty feet to my right. Two hedges on the property stopped his truck. He never hit his brakes. When his truck stopped, I could see the driver, slumped over the steering wheel, unconscious. I made two right turns to enter the Shell parking lot and dialed 911 for help. I learned after she was hospitalized that a diabetic episode had caused her to lose consciousness.
The first narrative in my mind prompted feelings of outrage. This selfish driver, whom I assumed to be male, was impatient and more important than the rest of us. The second narrative prompted urgent action and compassionate feelings. My first impulse was to stop a dangerous driver from killing others, and my second was to call for an ambulance to save the driver’s life.
Considering alternative to narratives is not always possible in real time, but you can learn to suspend certainty about any internal narrative through practice. It begins with observing more than the external event. You can expand your attention to include observation of your internal state. Practicing watching my own internal experience has shown me that I’m more prone to impatient reaction when I’ve missed a meal, gotten too little sleep, or been in a sour mood about something unrelated to the present event. I’m increasingly aware of my capacity for impatience, especially when others disrupt my calm state. Damn them!
Expanding your awareness about your impatience is the key to cultivating patience. A misguided use of meditation practice is trying to attain a constant state of calm. Good luck with that! Cultivating insight is more attainable. Enlightenment simply means turning up the lights. When you turn up the lights, you have a better chance to see what’s right in front of you and what’s rising inside of you.
I welcome your comments and personal experiences.
If you grew up with ADHD, you’ve probably struggled with patience at some time in your life, if not in every stage of life. I’m far more patient now than in my younger years, but I have no certificate saying, “Patience Attained: No Further Effort Needed.” Personal growth is a path, not a destination. Here are some examples of my continuing struggles with patience.
I’m impatient with impatient drivers who ride my bumper on the freeway. I’m certain that my reckless driving is not as bad as theirs. Unlike them, I keep a safe distance from drivers in front of me, except for those who drive like they’re looking for a parking space…on the freeway.
I’m impatient with people who say insensitive things to me about ADHD, like, “ADHD is just an excuse.” It’s easy for me to refrain from using ADHD as an excuse for anything because I never did. Nor have I used my dyslexia, age, vision problems, hair loss, hearing loss, or tall frame as an excuse for anything except banging my head on chandeliers. I do not need my ADHD. Imagine me saying, “You should excuse me for being late for work because I love my ADHD more than my job.” I don’t think so.
I am impatient with ADHD deniers. I would like nothing more than to have someone reconfigure my brain. To anyone who ever said I should just try harder to remember, or to stay focused, or to think before I speak, please accept this heartfelt proposal: Beginning tomorrow morning, I will try waking up each day with no symptoms of ADHD or dyslexia. My family and friends will be relieved, and I will feel competent.
I used to think I was patient with people who are more rejection-sensitive than I. I try to accept those who reject me for rejecting them when I’m not. I try to accept their defensiveness as I try to accept my own. My rejection sensitivity is subtle and preemptive. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, and feel horrible when I do. Others express rejection sensitivity as anger when they feel rejected. I lack patience with angry people who, like me, have trouble tolerating perceived rejection. Certainty about the motives and feelings of others is like shooting myself in the foot. It gets me nowhere, and it harms relationships.
I want serenity now! But to live one day at a time requires consistency, which is a problem for me. So I skip some days and forgive myself for inconsistent effort. I embrace the serenity prayer as I understand it. I have a five-page list of things I cannot change, but to change what I can assumes that I should. Now that I have learned to differentiate what I can and can’t change, I have the option of changing nothing. The idea of change is less inspiring to me than growth and development. I’ve grown more from accepting failure than achieving success.
I’m impatient with people who lack humility, I lack humility the moment I begin to feel proud of being humble. Then I have to sit in meditation until I recover true humility…without being proud of it. Patience opens me to compassion for people who suffer absence of humility due to childhood neglect, abuse, or other forms of being devalued. Humility helps us forgive ourselves and others for our imperfections.
I’m less patient with experts than flexible thinkers. I want to cultivate more patience with people who know everything, and people who read my mnid so well they know my thoughts before I express them and know my intentions without asking. They are still human and not so different from me. I am capable of thinking I know more than I know.
Most of all, I’m impatient with me.
I welcome your comments and observations.
Strive is considered a positive word, suggesting a rewarding outcome for extraordinary effort. Webster’s definition: “to devote serious effort or energy.” But the noun strife is a negative word that suggests conflict: “bitter sometimes violent conflict or dissension or and act of contention.” The two words share the same root, but the verb strive describes something internal while strife is external.
I believe striving has a downside. It can cause unnecessary internal conflict that inhibits creativity…a kind of strife within.
Did you ever notice being more productive when you cease striving? Have you ever gotten stuck striving to write a perfect opening sentence of an essay. When you do that, writing an entire essay seems daunting. But when you set out to write an imperfect draft, without concern about crafting sentences, the writing is easier. Knowing you can start editing and crafting your second draft is liberating. You can even postpone writing the opening sentence until the essay is otherwise complete. There is no reason to strive. In fact, striving, in this example, creates a conflict between creating and crafting.
I remember a hymn of peace we sang in church when I was a kid. I recently found a choral version of it on YouTube. The last verse touches an emotional chord that still invites ease of being into my soul: Drop thy still dews of quietness til all our strivings cease. Take from our souls the strain and stress and let our ordered lives confess the beauty of thy peace.
Trying to be requires effort; being doesn’t. Being who you are is more honorable than trying to be some ideal notion of who you should be. I have to practice interrupting thoughts that I should be someone who doesn’t make mistakes, never fails, always uses good judgment, has no regrets, is always confident and never questions himself. I do not get to be that person. Trying to be is more than a waste of time; it is self-centered preoccupation.
Rejecting the self is not a good way to start any endeavor. You can only start where you are. The beginning of writing my book was the only hard part. When I tried to write, I couldn’t. When I stopped trying to write, I just wrote.
Sometimes I can manage to stop striving and let it be. There is no good reason to think about the “I” that is being and doing. Paul McCartney said he once had a dream about his mother, a nurse who died at age 47 when Paul was 14. Near the end of his long run as a Beatle, he was going through hard times when his mother came to him in a dream and whispered to him, “let it be.”
Let it be…let it be.
What do you think? I welcome your comments.
You don’t want to be like everyone else, but you have ADHD and dislike being different. So, which is it? Do you prefer being a people pleaser? Do you want to avoid all people who don’t understand you? You don’t have to do either. Next time someone says, “I don’t understand you,” you might say, “I know you don’t, and I’m okay with that.” You may not feel okay before you say it, but you might after you say it. It only takes a little courage to practice being you. When you can do that, then you can change some things you want to change without rejecting yourself.
Here are some suggestions for practicing observing your experience without judgment (of yourself or others):
1. Dare to be different. If you don’t want to be different, you won’t be exceptional at anything.
2. Observe your rejection-sensitivity without judging it so you can stop blaming others for rejecting you.
3. If you believe in the power of acceptance, accept others who are different from you. Otherwise, you will reject difference itself, including the truth of your own difference.
4. Understand that no one else in the universe has had your life experiences, and you haven’t had theirs.
5. Speak if you want to be understood. Others will not know you if you’re unwilling to speak in your own voice.
6. You canot grow if you cannot tolerate the discomfort that comes with feedback you may need.
7. Don’t let anger separate you from others. Accept your feelings and stay connected.
8. Know that embracing differences frees you to be you and let others be different from you.
9. Accept positive differences that matter to you…your skills, interests, personality, temperament, energy, creativity, humor…whatever your strengths are.
10. Accept negative differences that should matter. For example, self-acceptance includes accepting that your ADHD affects others. You cannot prevent negative effects if you’re unaware of them.
11. If you wish to have influence with a spouse or friend, allow their influence. Allowing someone’s influence is often reciprocated, and mental flexibility is good for relatioinships.
12. Stop being defensive; it fuels more criticism. Stop criticizing; it makes people defensive.
Be careful not to give a therapist the impression that you need to be overhauled in order to have value. Your therapist might honor your desire for a makeover, and then you will not feel valued. Change doesn’t happen when you feel misunderstood or rejected, but when you feel understood and supported. Being different is not a problem.