Very simply, mindfulness is paying attention to what's happening in the here and now. So often we think about the past or project ourselves ahead into the future as we go about our daily lives. While there is nothing inherently unhealthy about past or future thinking, when we zone out from what we are doing to engage in this thinking, we miss out on the present of presence.
I remember my first experience seeing mindfulness in action. It was watching my college professor of Buddhism preparing a meal for some students. He held a beautiful, pure white ceramic knife and was chopping vegetables. He giggled saying: "Be one with the carrot." I watched him - in a relaxed yet focused and precise way - quickly and neatly chop the carrot into thin slices. Something clicked in me watching him "become one with the carrot." It was my first taste of mindfulness.
Since then, I have developed a practice of "doing meditation." It is simply doing things with 100 percent attention to the present moment.
Hand washing dishes is one of my favorites. I would wager that many people don't like doing dishes and try to get it over with as soon as possible, hastily scraping off food and throwing them in the dishwasher without even looking. (Guilty!) But slowing down, paying attention to what is happening right now, helps calm your mind and body and puts you in "the flow."
How do you do it? It's easier demonstrated in real-time than described (as are all mindfulness practices I've discovered), but let's walk through the steps.
1. Set the intention. Before your start, find the part within you that loves to do dishes. Loves to feel the warm water on your hands. Loves to have sparkling clean dishes to use. Loves how the act of doing dishes quiets your mind. Loves that you can slow down for a minute AND still get things done.
2. Go slow. Pay attention using all your senses as you turn on the water, wait for it to become the right temperature, soap the sponge, and select a dish. Feel the sensation of the warmth of the water heat up the inside of your hands. Feel the texture of the dish with your skin. See it with your eyes. Hear the sounds. Smell the soap. Notice the thoughts going through your mind and refocus to the sensations of the task at hand if it starts to get stuck on a thought. Notice your breathing.
3. Become one with the dishes. Track your movements with your eyes and thoughts without getting ahead of yourself. See and feel the part of the dish you are watching and methodically wipe the entire surface - not moving ahead or rushing. Put care into each movement. Feel that all the soap has been rinsed completely off. Watch as you put the dish into the rack. (How often have we started to put the dish into the rack then turned our head to look for the next dish while we're actually setting the dish down?) Say to yourself what it is you are doing at that moment: "Now I am washing the surface of the dish. Now I am putting the sponge down. Now I am rinsing the dish." Pause briefly between transitioning actions.
4. Notice how you feel. When you are done, shut off the water and just stand with your eyes closed. Scan your body from head to toe. Notice the internal sensations. Notice the sounds inside your body and the room. Feel the temperature of the air on your skin. Your clothes on you body. Your body standing in space. Notice your breathing and take a few deep breaths engaging the muscles of your diaphragm. Open your eyes and slowly take in your surroundings. Do a 360 degree scan of the room noting colors, shapes, objects. Notice the thoughts in your mind and your self-talk.
5. Practice acceptance. Perhaps your mind and body are more quiet and calm. Perhaps they are jittery and anxious with all the other things yet to be accomplished. Whatever it is your are experiencing, accept that it is your experience in this moment. It's not good or bad. It just is.
I use the word "practice" because it takes practice to build the skill of mindfulness. It is something you can cultivate over time and integrate into every moment of the day. To start, just pick one daily activity that you love, and try doing it slowly and with intention and care. You may find that over time, a new sense of peace and joy starts to replace the feelings of rushed anxiousness that often accompanies daily chores.
As I alluded to earlier, mindfulness is best learned by experiencing it rather than reading about it. I integrate mindfulness practices into my therapy work to help give my clients a place to practice new ways of approaching life that feel replenishing. There are many resources for mindfulness practices - from audio recordings to meditation groups to psychotherapy...to doing dishes!