I found myself the other day chopping some mushrooms. I've only recently, past three months or so, started to enjoy cooking, and this is largely due to my new practice of chopping everything first, rather than chop some, throw it in the pan, then rush to cut the rest so nothing burns and I'm eating in ten minutes, or die trying. By changing the order in which I do things, I've reduced the challenge from "Cook it fast" to "Have a good time and notice sensory details." Another way to put it is that I've turned cooking into an opportunity for mindfulness.
Mindfulness can be described in many ways. It's a state of being, a state of not doing, a way of using your attention, a kind of surrender, a skill, a meditation, acceptance of what is. I have more recently come to define it as the act of paying attention to my senses. Doing a kind of scan, "OK, what am I seeing, what am I hearing, how does my body feel?" I find that this is more concrete for me. The definition makes it easier to test whether I'm being mindful or not. I of course don't stay in this state for long, as my mind wanders into the stories behind what I'm sensing. "Oh, that's a tree. Trees are so old." "Oh that's a dog, I wonder what it's thinking." "I want ice cream!" The mind has endless energy to find something else.
One effective way of stopping the mind from being anywhere but here and (anywhen but now) is to participate in what is called Flow. Flow is another state of being, but slightly different from mindfulness. Flow is the experience of total engagement in an activity, with a loss of self consciousness and a distorted sense of time. It often happens when our skill level matches the challenge level of the activity we're doing. People who report experiencing flow more often also report being more satisfied with their lives in general. (I think the two main ways to increase happiness are to address the minute by minute experience and the big picture narrative. Flow is minute by minute, discovering and refining one's life purpose is the big narrative).
The good news is that it's not actually that difficult to create flow experiences. All it takes is: a clear goal, immediate feedback, and (breakable) rules. A few examples. Playing music: the goal is to make nice sounds, the feedback comes from the auditory senses, and the rules are roughly rhythm and melody. Reading: the goal is to process new ideas, the feedback comes from our thoughts, and the rules are grammar. Physical fitness: the goal is to get stronger/thinner/whateverer, the feedback comes from physical sensation in the muscles and joints, and the rules are whatever program one is following. When I was trying to be mindful in cooking, the goal was to enjoy myself, the feedback came from my feelings, and the rules were that I pay attention to how I felt and what I experienced.
The connection between mindfulness and flow, the reason I'm writing this post in the first place, is hard to detect. As far as I can tell, mindfulness can bring flow, and flow can bring mindfulness. Flow isn't always mindful, and mindfulness doesn't always create flow. So basically, they're not the same thing but can be done simultaneously, and also not.
Back to me chopping mushrooms. The other day when I was doing so, I had lapsed into my old state of doing, a rush from cut to cook to realize I forgot to put in oil to "Is it burning yet? It's burning isn't it!" Neither flow nor mindfulness. At this point, I had let some time go by, mid-cook snacking, more time than I had anticipated, and it became clear that I had more mushrooms than seconds to cut them. I started slicing left and right not straight, almost offing my thumb, when I paused. I could feel a familiar tightness of stomach that signaled to me I was Rushing. What happened to enjoying myself and taking in sensory details, bro? "I just DON'T HAVE THE TIME," when another thought entered my awareness. If I was too anxious to be mindful, then maybe I could change the activity. Instead of paying attention to my sensory experience, my new goal became to chop the mushrooms perfectly precisely in the exact amount of time it would take to do that, without letting myself wander into "ooh mushroom so soft" or mindless self-mutilation.
It was in this flexibility, changing the goal of the activity, that I was able to avoid hating myself. I went from, "How could I do this? To ME," to feeling like a Jedi Knight for a couple minutes.
The meal turned out horribly, since I had forgotten to take the chicken out of the fridge in the first place. I had to turn the stove off for a few minutes to wash and cut the chicken before doing that thing where you have to put the chicken under the already cooked vegetables, and it turned into more of a mushy stew than a stir fry.