While a chore like raking fall leaves may seem menial, it is actually one of many ever-present opportunities for mindful concentration on where your thoughts want to wander.
Mindfulness is more than sitting down and falling into a Zen, serene form of thinking. Mindfulness is intentional, an awareness of the present that places no judgment on what you find. In his book Happiness: The Mindful Way (DK, 2015), Ken A. Verni explores different methods of putting mindfulness into practice in order to help readers begin a richer, happier life. From coping with anxiety to breaking bad habits to public speaking, this book offers tested tips and expert advice for gaining resilience, confidence, and communication skills, and for becoming more successful in the overall pursuit of your goals. Here you’ll discover how breathing techniques, body scanning, and meditation can help rid you of damaging emotions and, always, be present in the moment.
Any repetitive chore — from painting a wall to doing the dishes — offers a chance for mindfulness. Leaf sweeping has Zen overtones: clearing leaves from ornamental patterns raked in sand was essential in a Japanese temple garden. Try it as an introduction to mindfulness in action.
British crime writer Agatha Christie famously said that the best time to plan a book is while you’re washing the dishes. It’s easy to see where she was coming from. The word “mindless” readily attaches itself to everyday chores, so if you can disengage from a boring and repetitive task and do it perfectly well on autopilot, then why not? You'll get the dishes clean at the same time as sorting out problems that require your conscious attention.
Why then, would you wish to make a mindless task mindful? It’s bad enough sweeping the yard without having to inhabit every moment of the chore as if it were precious. The moments would be precious, you might say, if you didn’t have to spend them brushing leaves away, and trying to enjoy it.
This parody of a popular, uninformed view is worth taking seriously for the questions it raises. Would you really miss a valuable experience if you did some thinking while sweeping the leaves? Wouldn’t you get the boring task done better and more quickly by tackling it head on, without mindfulness? And once you’ve swept a thousand leaves, would sweeping another few hundred really make the experience any richer?
Anyone who’s experienced the value of mindfulness should be able to tackle these questions without difficulty, since their intuition will be attuned to how it operates. First, they’ll know that mindfulness is not prescriptive. If someone has a menu to devise in their heads or a speech to plan, there’s no reason at all why they shouldn’t work on this while leaf-sweeping — especially if they’ve found they can think more effectively in such circumstances.
Any feeling of guilt about this choice would be unnecessary. Mindfulness does not impose choices upon you in the way that your nagging, logical mind may do.
There’s a big difference, however, between consciously using the sweeping time for thought and going out there with no intention other than to get the job done. People doing a routine activity often drift into thoughts of planning, and find themselves repeating the same thoughts unhelpfully — until thinking becomes as automated as sweeping. Also, their mind is likely to stray into pointless worrying. In any case, if you take your mind off a repetitive job, you’re likely to do it more slowly and less efficiently.
Nobody is going to concentrate 100 percent on leaf-sweeping, but if you do opt to sweep in the moment, with purposeful attention, and without judgment (not thinking “This is so boring” or “I wish I could be curled up by the fire”), you will create a stable place for your thoughts to settle. If they wander, and you start worrying about something, the mindful way is to observe those worries without getting drawn into them, and then gently, if you choose to, bring your focus back to your brushing. By the end of the session, you’ll have enjoyed a different kind of double benefit — getting the job done and spending some healing time (it is healing, though you won’t know this yet) in the now.
Bringing mindfulness to a routine task gives you the opportunity to be present in the moment, in a way that, over time, will help to rebalance your mind.
Mindfully sweeping leaves isn’t just about getting to know what they really look like or subjecting yourself to a session of mental austerity — your mind is sure to wander and you can learn a lot from its unauthorized detours.