Spectrum: Immersion, Transitions, and Executive Function

“I wish I could feel that,” my mom said to me a few winters ago when I visited her in Florida. We were standing near a willow thicket by a marsh at the Gulf Coast’s edge, and my ears were alert to a flycatcher’s chatter. It was a common state for me–my senses keen and my attention focused on finding and identifying the bird. I didn’t know what my mom was referring to. But it was the joy in being connected and engaged with the world around me through the gift of immersion.

My New Year’s resolution this year is to give myself permission to experience immersion.

Part of this project in exploring, identifying, and embracing my neurodivergence includes incorporating the gifts, as well as the challenges.

I’m realizing now that the capacity for immersion is a gift.

For decades, I’ve felt that I couldn’t afford to become immersed in an activity or hobby because it seemed to interfere with daily life, and, I wrongly suspected, with my mental health.

My maternal grandmother experienced manic-depression, and at one point, when I’d been blissfully high after becoming immersed in watching the sky, I began to suspect that this high led into hypo-mania, and that, by indulging in it, I was wiring my brain in a way that might leave me susceptible to full-blown mania. I decided the smart thing, the responsible thing, to do would be to reel it in, play it low-key, and keep myself as balanced as possible.

I’m realizing now that that’s, likely, nonsense.

I also put reins on the experience of immersion because, when I was a young adult, it interfered with my ability to manage the daily tasks of running a household: getting supper made, doing the dishes, cleaning house, washing laundry. It was too easy to get lost in a novel, a movie, a video game, painting, writing, gardening, bird-watching, or playing the guitar and forget everything else.

I sometimes found that my immersion in a project, activity, or novel would make me late for work, miss a buss, or skip an appointment. And sometimes, I would not be able to fully transition out of the immersed state, so I would move through the day with 60-80% of my attention and focus still within that novel, painting, or piece of music. This made functioning challenging, and, when we lived in the bustling city of Seattle, potentially dangerous.

So, I limited my experience of immersion in exchange for learning to manage daily life.

And somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that immersion, in and of itself, was bad and dangerous and unhealthy: an indulgence I couldn’t afford.

I am now declaring that notion to have outlived its purpose!

Immersion has a place in my life, and it has the potential to bring joy, to facilitate the development of gifts, and to allow me to be fully, wholly, engagedly me.

For example: I’ve been playing cello for nearly nine years. This means that I can, sometimes, actually play in tune, and that I can play some pieces well enough that I can lose myself in them and allow the music itself to be expressed through me. Right now, I’m working through (for probably the fifth time) Bach’s first cello suite. There is something there! When I become immersed, it feels as if something external–this concept, this structure, this pattern that finds resonance within our own neurological patterns–enters through the music and I align with it. The intonation of my instrument becomes an intonation of myself. This experience is healthy, healing, invigorating, pure, and in alignment with something beyond the reaches of this universe. I would not trade this experience for anything. It is, to me, what life and what being a human being are all about.

I am learning that the way to handle immersion so that I can benefit from my gifts is to approach it, not in the hedonistic way I did as a young adult, but with maturity and planning.

The interference that my immersion caused in my daily life happened when I had trouble with the transition from the immersed experience into the next activity or when I became upset at interruptions.

So this year, I will approach transitions consciously and strategically. I am writing this half an hour before I need to head into the office. I know, then, that I will need to put a bookmark in these thoughts and ideas, especially if I don’t have time to complete this draft before I leave, so that my focus and attention is freed up to engage with (and immerse myself in) the projects I need to do at work today.

A few minutes before I leave, I’ll close out my browser, shut off my laptop, and fold down the lid, signalling to myself that this writing session is over. Then I have the routines of dressing in my office clothes, packing up my lunch, and saying goodbye to my boyfriend to close out those synapses that have been opened through this writing session.

On the drive into the office, I’ll listen to classical music to engage the busy part of my brain while immersing myself, with as much presence as I’m able to summon, in the act of driving, an activity which is challenging for me and my capacity for attention, information-processing, and physical coordination.

These transition activities, and the routines associated with them, should help me emerge from the immersion in writing so that I can engage fully with my responsibilities at the office.

With cello practice, it’s much simpler: The practice itself has clear boundaries. First, I take my cello out of its case and adjust the end-pin. Then, I rosin my bow. Next I sit with the cello, adjust my hold, and tune the instrument. By the time I begin scales, I am in it.

Practice sessions have a clear beginning and ending: When I complete what I’ve set out to play and practice that day, I’m done. And then, the closing process: Put in the end-pin, wipe the cello, put the cello in the case, loosen the bow, set aside the music. These simple actions pull me back so that I can attend to what comes next.

Interruptions are challenging. I often don’t hear–or can’t comprehend–what’s been said, if it’s a spoken interruption, which, it seems, most interruptions are. I find that putting my attention into my body helps. First, I feel the soles of my feet. Then, if I’m sitting, I feel where the chair presses against me. Then I breathe and tell my mind that it is time to be verbal–time to think in words again. It sometimes takes a few moments, and I usually need to ask the person to repeat themselves.

This is, generally, an uncomfortable process, and I think this may part of the reason that I decided, years ago, to forgo the immersive experience, at least if there were danger of being interrupted, and, since I live with someone else and work in a busy office, there is, nearly always, that possibility.

So now, I’m going to take a different approach: I’m going to attempt to approach my response to interruptions mindfully and with kindness, towards myself and the other. I will realize that the interruptions from a state of immersion are a bit painful–or, at the very least, uncomfortable–so I’ll be gentle with myself as I make the transition into a verbal state again. And I’ll be kind and understanding of the other person–the one who caused the interruption–realizing that they are simply interacting with me in a normal manner. It’s not their fault that I experience some discomfort as I move out of my immersed or focused state and back into a state that allows me to respond to them.

Along the way, I’ll be watching to see if mindful compassion is enough. I may need to develop or learn some specific strategies to help me with interruptions.

With some projects, I need to realize that I have to stop them before they are finished, and so I am the one interrupting my immersion. For example, it’s now time for me to head to the office. But I want to stay and finish this post, and I can feel that my brain is longing to complete these thoughts.

And yet. My goal in allowing myself to become immersed is to do so in a way that I can manage with my responsibilities and the tasks of daily living.

So I am going to tell myself that these ideas will still be there when I return. I can put those bookmarks in, I can let my attention shift to writing HTML code, and when I return to complete this post, I will be able to re-immerse myself. (I will let you know how this goes!)


It is the next morning. Yesterday’s practice of immersing myself in writing, emerging from that state, and completing a productive day at the office went well, in part because it was a very busy day at the office, so I was able to move from one immersed state to another.

Overall, I feel that if I trust the structure of my life, the routines of work schedules and my own schedules for tasks, I will be able to engage successfully with the immersive experience. Each morning, I review for myself the few things that must get done and the things that I want to do. I identify options and times where I have flexibility: for example, I don’t have to practice cello after I do the dishes; I can do it in the afternoon, if I prefer, or even skip the practice altogether, if yoga, spending time in the garden, or simply daydreaming better suit the needs of the day.

In other words, within structure, I can give myself the freedom to become immersed. It doesn’t have to be one or the other–I can live responsibly while still living rich.

Author’s note: Many of the ideas in and the inspiration for this post were spurred by an amazing series of articles I found on “Hacking Your Executive Function” by autofspoons, one of my new favorite bloggers.

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