The value of choosing to pay attention

In recent weeks, I’ve spent quite a lot of time reflecting on Jon Kabat Zinn’s definition of mindfulness. He describes mindfulness as paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.

This first quality of paying attention ‘on purpose’ might appear quite a straightforward proposition, but it’s worthy of closer inspection. Paying attention on purpose means that we actively choose to pay attention – we exercise a choice. Adding together the first two parts of Zinn’s definition, we can identify mindfulness as choosing to pay attention to our present moment experience. This perhaps implies that the alternative is ignoring, overlooking or dismissing the present moment.

The language of ignoring or overlooking however, might suggest some sense of active choice being made. The truth is, even with the slightest amount of experience with practising mindfulness, it’s not really the case that we’re actively choosing not to be present, rather we are simply absent and unaware. Probably the best term to describe this is that we spend much of our time functioning on autopilot.

Paying attention to the everyday

So this brings me to this morning’s bowl of cereal. I have an interesting and sometimes antagonistic relationship with the whole ceremony of putting cereal in a bowl, considering what would be a mindful approach to consuming the cereal, and then the reality of getting on and eating it. Lately I’ve been eating a homemade muesli full of different grains, nuts and dried fruits. I’ve noticed a perception that it takes a long time to eat and sometimes experience that as a chore.

A bowl of muesli with many different ingredients

As I sat down to eat today, I noticed beside me the local newspaper that had arrived the night before. I found my thoughts drawn towards needing to know what was inside. I’ve been here many times before, usually when my phone has been nearby and I’ve yet to read the day’s news, check my social media feeds, or see how my eBay auction is doing.

When the phone wins, I end up hunched over the bowl with my eyes fixed to the screen and my attention fully absorbed in its contents. Meanwhile, in parallel and largely without any need for awareness (clever me!) my hand is lifting a spoon to my mouth, filling it with food, my jaw gets to work helping reduce the food before it is swallowed, and the whole process is repeated – on autopilot – until the bowl is empty.

This morning I found there was a shift in my perspective. I reminded myself of the opportunity for connection which is presented to us each time we eat a meal. Moreover, I considered what a pity it is not to savour what is in our bowl or on our plate. I decided that the newspaper could wait and made the choice to pay attention on purpose to eating my cereal.

Finding connection through paying attention

What is this opportunity for connection offered by our bowl of cereal? Firstly, to eat with mindfulness invites attentiveness to our food – becoming aware of its texture, temperature, flavour and aroma. We notice the crunch or squish between our teeth, the food passing down the throat to the belly.

Meditation teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh have also spoken beautifully about pausing to contemplate what is in our bowl, and what this points towards in terms of our deep relationship and connection with the world around us. The story and journey of all the different items in my muesli are complex and interwoven. Each has required the sun, rain and soil to nurture their growth over many months. A number of people may have been involved in their planting and harvesting. Others have overseen their packaging, transport and final sale before they eventually reach my bowl.  

If we’re interested in learning how to apply mindfulness when running, then our training ground absolutely includes the morning bowl of cereal.

Mindfulness of the everyday as our training ground

What does our bowl of cereal have to do with mindful running? When we can begin to understand or perceive our meal in the way described above, there is something quite extraordinary presenting itself to us, a whole world away from mechanically shovelling food into our mouths while our attention is placed somewhere else.

If we’re interested in learning how to apply mindfulness when running, and enjoying the benefits of this, then our training ground absolutely includes the morning bowl of cereal, just as it includes other everyday activities such as hanging out the washing or chatting with our neighbour. These are all activities in the moment (the only place they can be) where we can choose to pay attention.

Finding new depths in the ordinary

In the same way we’ve described paying attention to eating our cereal, similarly we can bring presence to pegging our washing on the line. We can feel the texture and dampness of the freshly washed clothing. We can notice the light pressure on our fingertips as we squeeze and place the peg. When talking to our neighbour are we just nodding politely and absent-mindedly when they tell us about their latest episode at the hospital? Or are we choosing to be fully present and available to them, which is both mindful and kind.

If a bowl of cereal offers a rich practice opportunity when we pay attention, so too does the running trail. Both eating cereal and going for a run are really nothing more than a connected string of moments. One starts by deciding what to eat and locating the food, bowl, milk and spoon. The other starts when we decide where to go and put on the appropriate clothing. Both activities have an ending – washing our bowl or body, and tidying away etc. And sandwiched between the beginning and the ending is of course the eating and the running.

Paying attention when we run

As with eating, when we run we are also paying attention to our physical experience and tactile sensations. Our perspective when running also includes an awareness of our environment and of the habits of our mind. Sometimes we are present, sometimes the mind is wandering. In choosing to learn to run mindfully, it is important therefore not to approach our running as an isolated activity. Every moment is an opportunity to be present and aware, to practise mindfulness, so the more we become attuned to paying attention in the training ground of the everyday, the more easily we will be able to apply and appreciate the benefits of mindfulness when we run.