The Case for Being Interrupted

Cara Lai
May 26, 2024
A baby playing on a dog that is lying down

This is my eighth or ninth attempt to sit down and write this newsletter. Every time I go to write it, I get interrupted by an important text, my kid wakes up from his nap, or I suddenly realize that I can’t remember the last time I took a shower, and that feels more important than writing the newsletter which, ironically, is supposed to be about how we can embrace interruptions as a part of our mindfulness practice.

Until my son was born 18 months ago, I had the luxury of taking long, uninterrupted baths, binging on Netflix to my heart’s content, and even—wait for it—reading an actual book. Now, a typical morning looks like me cooking scrambled eggs while making sure my kid doesn’t pull all the condiments out of the pantry, but too late, he already spilled the olive oil, and the dog is licking it up, and all the while I’m trying to have some semblance of a conversation with my housemate, who kindly points out that the eggs are burning. I read a quote recently that said, “To be a parent is to be constantly interruptible.” My friend Khalila puts it more bluntly, saying: “Being a mom is basically getting right back up again after you just sat down.” 

But it’s not just parents who get interrupted constantly, it’s all of us. With our tech, communication has proliferated, so that rather than sitting down and having one long conversation, we have 45 different conversations taking place in little bites over the course of a few hours. And even if you aren't a heavy tech user, we live in a world full of people moving at a fast pace with squirrel-like attention, and this frenetic energy makes most of us constantly interruptible. 

Being interrupted is not usually thought of as a positive experience, unless the interruption is more exciting or pleasing to us than the task at hand. And the experience of being constantly interrupted is definitely not something most of us would welcome. That’s why some of us find it to be such a relief to practice meditation, or to go on meditation retreats, where the whole setup is designed to give us as few interruptions as possible, and to make it so that we can sit down and never have to get back up again. While this setup is helpful in many ways, it can lead us to believe that minimizing interruption is essential to a good meditation practice. 

Interruptions can be welcomed as a part of our mindfulness practice. It looks good in writing, doesn’t it? Or let’s try this one on: interruptions can be used to help us be happier. As outlandish as these claims seem, I can actually attest to being happier overall despite (or perhaps because of) my current heightened state of interruptibility, and I think this has everything to do with my practice of embracing interruption.

If we look closely, we can see that the problem isn’t so much the interruption itself, but our relationship to it. When we’re at odds with the interruption, whether it’s being pulled away from the book we’re reading, or something more serious like an injury, we suffer not because of what happened, but because of how we feel about it.  When we think things need to be a particular way in order to be ok, we perpetuate the belief that we can’t really handle life. The more I practice, the more I come to define real freedom as increased flexibility. Or, as my friend Jess Morey describes enlightenment, an “infinite window of tolerance.” And if it’s a game of expanding our window of tolerance, we might even play with welcoming life's interruptions as a mindfulness bell, something to break us out of our old habits or ruts, and expand us somewhere new.

Embracing interruption doesn’t mean you have to follow every phone notification and advertisement that comes your way. In fact, simplicity and renunciation lend themselves to happiness. I’m talking more about finding a place of receptivity and nonresistance to the interruptions we can’t avoid, the ones we find ourselves at odds with. Paying attention in this way actually makes us more aware, so that we actually have a choice when we are impulsively following every distraction.

Try this: Go about your meditation expecting to be interrupted. Instead of just jumping back to the anchor when you find the attention has wandered, be open and curious about where you’ve found yourself. Linger there and see what’s unfolding. You can choose to go back to your anchor if and when you’re ready, or not. Stay open and curious about where the attention naturally goes. 

And if you don’t try that, definitely try this one: Go about your day expecting to be interrupted. Instead of jumping back to your routine when something unexpected happens, stay awake, receptive, and curious about what might happen if you open fully to the interruption. 

I do a weekly cold plunge with a group of women in a frigid river in New Hampshire where I live. I’ve described it as a great interruption to my normal routines, one that blasts me into another dimension and makes me feel connected to something much bigger than myself. It helps me feel open to other interruptions in my life, so that I can stop feeling annoyed at my son when he pulls all the clothes that I just folded out of the drawer, and start seeing the world through his fresh, playful eyes. I could expend more energy on the frustration of not getting things in order, but if instead I embrace the wholeness of this moment, I get to welcome in the delight, love, and innumerable toddler mouth-fart sounds that come with my current state of affairs. If we can recognize an interruption as the universe’s way of shaking us awake and into the present moment, every unexpected event and obstacle can become something that brings us to life.

Cara Lai spent most of her life trying to figure out how to be happy, or at least avoid total misery, which landed her on a meditation cushion for the majority of her adulthood. Throughout many consciousness adventures including a few mind-bendingly long meditation retreats, she has explored the wilderness of the mind, chronic illness, and the importance of pleasure. She teaches teen and adult meditation retreats across the country.

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