On mindfulness

Have you ever had the experience where you’re driving home from work and suddenly you’re turning down your street and you don’t even remember getting there? Your mind was so far away that you paid no attention to what you were doing — you were completely on automatic pilot? That’s the opposite of mindful living.

Instead of thinking of all the tasks on your to-do list as disagreeable chores that have to be done before you can put your feet up and watch Survivor, think of them as integral parts of your life, fully worth your attention. Instead of hurrying to get the less wonderful parts of your life over with, experience those parts fully, learn the lessons you need to learn from them, even discover that you like those chores you thought you hated.

For example, I did not enjoy cooking when I first started rattling around the kitchen. I burned almost everything and what I didn’t burn I undercooked. I made mistakes during measurement and couldn’t figure out how to correct them and so wasted ingredients. But over time, I came to enjoy the feeling of paring potatoes, using my creativity to come up with a nourishing meal when the cupboards were practically bare, serving a meal my daughter and I truly enjoyed. I learned to enjoy finicky tasks like grating the zest of a lemon without transgressing into the pith, discovered an unknown talent for pie-making and eventually learned to tell by sound if the candy base had reached a hard boil.

Now I enjoy leafing through new cookbooks at the bookstore, trading recipes with friends, gossiping with older folks about how they used to make their family meals. I love having my daughter Jessica at my side measuring ingredients into the bowl for me, asking as many questions as she can think up (not all of them entirely related to the task at hand), and feeling a sense of accomplishment when we create a meal that she helped put together. Jessica was a big help! she’ll announce, and it’s true.

For me, going to the grocery store is a treasure hunt. Will they have cardamom this time, and if not can I find something else, just as good, to use in the spiced chai? And look at those Asian pears – I wonder if I can come up with a good way to serve them this week?

I enjoy this so much that I am often startled to learn that most people think putting food on the table is an enormous chore, one to be handed off to someone else if possible (spouse, roommate, fast food joint, take out place, frozen food manufacturer). If only they knew that with a little practice and a little intention, they could turn a chore into a fabulous experience that makes them feel competent and entertained. If it has to be done, why not enjoy doing it? That’s the essence of kaizen.

It can be difficult to live mindfully after years of trying to keep your mind distracted from how boring and humdrum your life is. But only attending to what you’re doing can you find out how delightful and interesting your life really is.

Living mindfully means instead of jumping in the shower and rushing through the process of slathering on the soap, you concentrate on how warm the water feels against your skin, how nice the mango scented soap smells, how relaxing it is to close your eyes and let the water rush over your body. The mindful shower doesn’t have to take any more time than the unmindful one, but think how much more pleasant and appealing it is. It can set the right tone for the whole day. Instead of starting the day feeling rushed and anxious, you can feel more relaxed and ready to tackle the challenges that await.

In other words, take pleasure even in the drudgery by being fully present in the experience, and some of the drudgery disappears.

A few of my favorite things

LESSONS IN MAGIC
A CERTAIN KIND OF MAGIC
THE IMPROBABLE ADVENTURES OF A MIDDLE-AGED WOMAN
DOJO WISDOM FOR WRITERS

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