‘Someone is coming tomorrow to polish the concrete downstairs’, my sister tells me, ‘there will be chemicals, so you can’t be here’. I throw some clothes and books into a bag and head to my aunt Anne’s for a sojourn. I am more than fine with this because Anne has a bath, and a comfy bed for me to read in as much as I please. Anne is an analogue person. She has a home phone people actually call her on, and leaves her mobile phone in her study at all times, as if it were also tethered to the wall. She doesn’t get out of her flannelette pyjamas until she has finished a very large pot of loose-leaf tea, read the newspaper front to back, and leisurely finished two slices of her favourite toast. Anne’s loose-leaf tea is a homemade blend composed of three other, different loose-leaf teas. She doesn’t have any unnecessary snacks in her house, so when I ask after a sweet biscuit for the afternoon pot, she pulls out a bowl and beaters and assembles a simple tea cake. She stretches every day and goes walking without a headset, her way of practicing mindfulness. Anne goes to the market, makes soup stocks, recycles properly, and maintains a healthy compost.
During my week stay, I can’t help but notice that every time I return from an outing and step inside her home, I am immediately enveloped in calm. All week I pay attention to Anne and her process of living, trying to understand how one cultivates such an atmosphere. Anne, I realise, is the antidote to modernity, and the stress that comes with it. She does things with a kind of presence that the outside world all too often lacks. When she reads the paper, she reads it with all her attention. When she eats a baguette at the café up the road, she sits at the counter and contemplates each mouthful while at the same time talking with the owner, hearing out his grievances with compassion and curiosity. The way Anne operates reminds me of a passage in one of my favourite books by Deborah Levy, in which Levy shares a piece of advice from her father that had stayed with her all her life. Levy’s father said to her that to fill a kettle through its spout is a disservice to the kettle’s soul, and encouraged her to never move through life in this way. What I took from this anecdote, and from my week at Anne’s, is the notion of slowing down, taking care and really engaging in life. That is, if you have to hurry, do it slowly.
Many of us are out of touch with our true selves, because of the world we exist in
I broach this topic with Anne at her kitchen bench while she marinates some lamb for our dinner. It’s only 12pm but if she gets it on soon, she says, it will be falling apart by evening. I tell her about the way I often lay in bed at night listing the things I must get done the next day, trying to decipher the best order to do them to maximise my time. I tell her the subsequent way I speed through all these things absent and exhausted. The way I stop and collect a takeaway coffee only to realise I don’t even feel like one. Lately, I say, when I swim my laps, I cannot help but think about where I must ride to when I get out, what route I will take, where I will get lunch, if I will message a friend for a wine or if I will go straight home for dinner, and what I would cook if I did… The list goes on. Opposite me, Anne stares at me with intent while she massages the shoulder of lamb with more spices than I own. She tells me I am out of touch with myself, and that a lot of people are, because of the world we exist in.
Western society tends to value productivity and outcomes, rather than the process itself
There are many things wrapped up in my predicament. Things ranging from western productivity standards; the technology age; the information age; the privilege of too much choice; a culture that seems to possess a gross fear of boredom, of stillness. These are all things I am conscious of, have written about and do my best to actively resist. I have a healthy work-life balance, read for long stints, participate in introspection, walks, cooking, plenty of sleep. Yet something has still succeeded in hijacking the way I am experiencing this life; I feel burdened by a constant indecision and restlessness that I cannot break out of.
It seems, despite all my active efforts, I have internalised the myths of the modern world, which emphasise and glorify busyness, multitasking and productivity as the greatest successes to be achieved in life. This is not my fault, Anne says, but it is up to me to undo. We talk about how there is clearly something – a lot – that is fundamentally wrong with the system we operate in. We feel the pressure to perform, maximise our time, and get everything done. From errands, to self-care, to seeing friends, attending birthdays, working hard, winding down, finding a lover, maintaining relationships, getting haircuts, cars serviced, Centrelink payments, buying groceries, packing lunch, remembering a raincoat, reading the news, ordering coffee, falling asleep, waking up and doing it all over. Yes, we might get it all done, though often we are not present and therefore not enjoying the process of it. Instead, I find I am floating above myself, telling myself what to do next because that’s what seems right, because that’s what everyone else is doing.
It’s time we learned to slow down
The co-founder of Headspace and former Buddhist monk, Andy Puddicombe, believes the largest gift we can give ourselves is that of being present, a gift those around you will also enjoy the benefits of. According to Puddicombe, being present means being engaged with life, connected with the environment and people you are interacting with, listening with kindness, staying open-minded and, importantly but perhaps the most difficult, remaining free from judgment. At its most basic level it means being completely focused on the sentence you are writing, the conversation you are having, the egg you are boiling or the coffee you are drinking. It is doing something without wanting to be elsewhere, or without being entirely within your head on an abstract train of thought.
This anchoring is difficult to master in the modern world, where our very attention is a commodity, and where we are constantly comparing ourselves with others, dwelling on yesterday or worrying about next week. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness, which is also a popular technique in modern psychotherapy, helps to bridge the gap between our emotions about the past, and our impatience with, or anticipation of the future. Puddicombe encourages bringing the practice of meditation to our day-to-day tasks, believing it will allow us to be more present and get more out of the lives we are living. Apparently, meditation does not need to look like the cliché quiet room, legs crossed, breathing exercises. Instead, it can simply involve paying attention to your body, thoughts or emotions, and how it feels when consuming, talking, listening, watching, or playing.
Mindfulness is an ongoing practice
As soon as I get back to my own dwellings, I attempt to adopt Anne’s way of living in every way I can. I do not have access to a large and lovely house, or the time for such unhurried paper-reading and toast-grazing mornings – which is to say, I am not yet retired, like Anne. But I also recognise that Anne has been this way forever, throughout her nursing career and her role as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, and friend. She has always found the time, always had the gift, of hurrying slowly. So, in the weeks that follow, I do not plan more than two things in a single day.
I make myself sit down for every meal and order only one cup of coffee a day, which I sit down for and drink out of a mug. I call people instead of texting them. If I want to watch a sitcom, I watch it unconditionally, putting away my phone and trying to pay attention to the details of the set, not missing a single line. When I swim my laps I focus on the structure of my hand, my six-beat kick, the sun on the bottom of the pool. I pick a podcast prior to my walk, allowing me to take in my surroundings when I start moving, rather than fumbling with my phone and wrestling with indecision about which episode to listen to when I’m outside. I keep listening through the parts I find dull, and take in the whole podcast recording. When eating, I try to pause half-way through my meal, holding myself still so as to create space to really notice what is in front and around me, as well as the flavours on my tongue. I try to consciously reign in my mind, every time I feel it starting to wander. This happens often, though less and less as the weeks go on.
It’s not what you show up to, or what you have to show for yourself, but rather how you show up
One of the most fascinating things about this ‘Anne’ way of doing things, which is to say the slow, proper, and thoughtful way, is that the days feel infinitely longer. And, after one week of practicing this new kind of presence and working on re-directing my attention, I feel like I’ve unlocked the secret to living longer. It’s easy to forget the finite amount of time we have on this earth. We can easily become preoccupied with the destination, as well as with other people’s movements and decisions. It’s helpful and soothing to remember that what’s important is not what you show up to, or what you have to show for yourself, but rather how you show up.
One morning, I’m reading my book on the couch and bobbing a teabag up and down when my sister calls asking if I’d like to come to the market with her and my nephew. While there is nothing I really need, I agree. I walk the aisles aimlessly, my nephew’s small hand in mine, observing all the exchanges and nuances of the space as well as watching how my nephew is experiencing all this. There is a McIver’s tea shop in the corner of the Queen Victoria Market deli hall that I’ve always noticed, liked the look of, but never visited.
While my sister and her son line up for a cheese and spinach Borek, I approach the tea shop. There are many different loose-leaf teas, with the most popular ones in bags. I pick up a packet of ‘Vic Market Mornings’ tea bags and place it on the counter. Then I notice the range of one cup, two cup, four cup teapots on display. ‘Would you like to see one?’, the woman behind the counter asks me, glancing at the colourful pots. I nod and ask her to pull down the yellow one, please. It’s lovely and small, fit for two cups. I purchase it along with three different loose leaf black teas, which I will mix into my own blend. I understand the tea is a declaration of my commitment to the present-moment, to being a person who does not fill the kettle up from its spout, who drinks a small pot of loose-leaf tea, rather than a quick tea bag in a mug. I will do my best to find the time for this each morning and to drink the tea with an openness, acceptance and curiosity about what might come next in my day.
There are many ways to start practicing mindfulness in everyday life
If you are looking for ways to bring back the joy in your own life, I’ve included some tips I’ve been finding helpful lately:
- Think about the things that bring you joy and, if you can, drop the ones that don’t.
- Limit your daily goals, and set out to accomplish a maximum of three things. That might not seem like much but that adds up to 21 tasks a week! Three a day means you are prioritising relaxation and leisure.
- Think carefully about why you’re doing something and learn to say no when needed. Just because you think you ‘should’, is not enough a reason to do something. Stretching yourself too thin comes with the danger of stripping the joy out of other things in life, too.
- Welcome time to be unproductive. Do ‘useless’ things as if you were a kid – you might find that they aren’t so useless after all.
- Remind yourself to practice valuing quality over quantity. For example, if you’re like me and tend to oversubscribe to publications and blogs and wind up feeling bad for not reading them, narrow it down to two you want to stay up to date with.
- An obvious one: reduce screen time, and limit your email and news application checks to twice a day!
- Spend your time on the people you love. This is the easiest route to a more meaningful existence.
We must not get caught up in the destination, only to find we have squandered our entire journey, glorious and messy as it may be. Because, in the words of great novelist Anthony Chekhov, “What seems to us serious, significant, very important, will one day be forgotten or will seem unimportant”. In the end, we make the choice where our energy is spent. Choose presence, and hurry up, because it’s time to slow down.
To learn more about mindfulness, you might like to watch this 10 minute TedTalk by Andy Puddicome, of Headspace. If you’d like more resources and specialised support with tailoring mindfulness practices to suit your individual needs, you can also book in to see one of our trained psychologists.