You probably remember the Steve Martin line, “well excuuuuse me!” but do you remember the skit that launched it? It started like this:

You.. can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes!
You can be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes!
You say… “Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?”
First… get a million dollars.

Many unemployed people these days would like a plan for getting a million dollars, or at least for an economic recovery. Imagine if our president announced that he had a new plan to achieve just that. We’d want to know what the plan was. Imagine how disappointed we would be if when asked in an interview to spell it out he said, “What do you mean? I did spell it out. The plan is to have an economic recovery! That is the plan.

That would be so unlike Obama. He knows that a goal is not a plan. Steve Martin at his delightfully thickest acted like he didn’t. Most of us fall in between, sometimes treating a goal as though it were a plan, or at least tolerating in others a failure to distinguish.

I was talking to a dear and very intelligent friend who is also my chiropractor. I hadn’t seen him in years. Recently I exercised wrong and went back to him.

He reads an enormous amount of science, philosophy and spiritual books. I asked him what had become of his spiritual pursuits. He said, that he really didn’t know what spirituality meant anymore.

I agreed with him. I’m not sure I know either. He said that he had come to a conclusion that it all came down to “being present.” When he’s present things go well.

I said I understand the sentiment, but that I wasn’t sure what “being present” means either. When I was studying Buddhism, one way they taught you to be present was through the saying, “When brushing your teeth, just brush your teeth.”

At the time it sounded like a great plan for presence but by now I think it was just a goal masquerading as a plan. My suspicion that it wasn’t a plan started when I tried to extend it beyond toothbrushing. What exactly did it mean? Was it an argument against multi-tasking? Our could you just as easily say, “when brushing your teeth while reading a magazine, just brush your teeth and read a magazine?” Or for that matter, could you just as easily say, “when brushing your teeth, listening to your ipod, scratching yourself and reading a magazine, just brush your teeth, listen to your ipod, scratch yourself and read a magazine?”

It wasn’t clear.

I mean what’s the limit, and if there is no limit, what’s the point? It seems to be saying something about focusing, but really it gives you no instructions for extrapolating from toothbrushing to the rest of your day.

It can’t just be about toothbrushing. Is it saying that you should never focus on anything more mind consuming than toothbrushing? Should your attention-to-activity ratio always be so high, giving your full attention to such tiny tasks? I raised all of this with my friend.

“I mean look at us,” I said, “We’re talking while you’re working on my back. Are we being present?”

He acknowledged that it was a good question, but said that for him, it comes down to doing what’s effective. For him, it’s effective to work on my back and talk. I agreed. I didn’t think the conversation was too distracting. We were multitasking and it was effective.

To my ears, if you define being present as focusing on what’s effective, “Presence” is not an answer, it’s a question and a very persistent one at that, one that drives the behavior of our attentional system. Ideally, attention tunes in what’s significant and tunes out what isn’t. But what’s significant can’t be known with the certainty in the present. Sometimes things that, at present seem significant turn out, in the long run to be insignificant. And conversely, sometimes things that, in the present seem insignificant turn out in the long run to be insignificant.

I too think of “being present” as a great interpretation of the spiritual path, but not as an answer. Rather it’s a question that asks itself every day, a question our intuitions generally handle quiet successfully but nonetheless can’t be answered conclusively until tomorrow when you find out what turned out to have been significant enough to be present for.

I’m an enthusiastic multi-tasker. I wouldn’t wish my tendencies on everyone but it is my style. For me, life is too short and splendid for anything less than multitasking. I’m more likely to overstuff my time. I’m more inclined to be inclusive, considering many things significant at once and hence to divide my attention too much. This is evident whenever by multitasking I make a mistake. I can move too fast, for example when exercising and then I throw my back out.

Still, there is no clear standard for appropriate attention. It depends on appetite, aptitude and circumstances. In those tasks that call for constant vigilance in order to prevent only occasional calamities this becomes a real challenge. How much attention should you give driving? Most of the time not much attention is really needed. But occasionally there’s a split second challenge that calls for your undivided attention and more, and you realize in retrospect that you should have been paying more attention.

Yes, in retrospect, you should have been paying more attention. But that’s the problem. As advice goes, saying, “Pay attention,” or “Be present” is incomplete in two important respects. First, it doesn’t say what’s worthy of your attention. As such it’s as empty as saying, “Always focus upon…”

It prompts the question “what?”

And if the implied answer is “On whatever turns out to matter later,” it prompts the response, “yeah, but whatever turns out to matter later” often reveals itself too late.

Between these two sources of incompleteness it boils down to “always do what turns out to be effective,” which is no more effective than saying, “Your plan should be to succeed.” Excuuuse me, but that’s a goal masquerading as a plan.

Attention prayer

Grant me the presence to concentrate on the things that will end up proving significant, the obliviousness to ignore the things that will end up proving insignificant and the wisdom to know the difference.

The wisdom here is the ability to minimize both regretted yeses and regretted no’s on the question “Is this significant?” because the last thing I want is the focus to concentrate on the things that will end up proving insignificant or the obliviousness to ignore the things that will end up proving significant.

Of course the challenge is that what will prove significant can’t be known for sure until tomorrow, and I have to decide today.