A few weeks ago, I was on a retreat as part of a year-long course I recently took on Mindfulness and Psychotherapy. (For the record, the course meets in person in the Boston area and online for those of you around the world, and it’s fantastic. If you’re a mental health professional interested in integrating mindfulness into your practice, I highly recommend you check it out.) Anyway, we spent about 36 hours of the retreat in silence, during which time our goal was to meditate on whatever we were doing: sitting, walking, washing dishes, and eating.
At each meal, I tried to focus on eating slowly by chewing carefully and paying attention to the flavor, smell, and texture of each bite. This doesn’t come naturally to me; even before I had kids, I tended to shovel my food in as though a baby was crying or a toddler was nagging me to wipe her tushy, and once I became a mother, well, things just went downhill. If I wasn’t careful on the retreat, I quickly reverted back to my habit of speed eating, even though there wasn’t a kid in sight.
And then I remembered a tip I had read somewhere about how to eat more slowly: put down your fork between bites. As I thought about it, I realized that I can’t be fully present for any one bite if I’ve got one hand wrapped around a fork, poised to take the next one. It’s taken me a long time to fully understand this, and I’m still fully figuring it out, but what we’re doing with our bodies at any given moment really does influence how our brains are working (or not). Merely holding a utensil in my hand triggered my mind to think about what was coming next, which meant I wasn’t thinking about the bite I was working on.
And so, for four meals in a row, I practiced putting down the fork. I would take a bite, set the fork down, place my hands on the table (I know, a real no-no in the world of manners, but it helped me stay focused), and pay attention to what I was eating. Each time I did, I found myself more able to notice and enjoy each bite as it happened. I chewed more, ate less, enjoyed my food more, and felt significantly more fulfilled and nourished at the end of each meal.
But it wasn’t just about what happened at the dinner table, and that’s the awesome thing about meditation of any sorts: the lessons we learn on the cushion or while we’re walking or eating or doing anything else often translate into real life. And as I sat there, putting down my literal fork, I started thinking about how often I move through life carrying a theoretical fork.
The answer is, of course, almost always.
No matter what I’m doing, chances are I’m thinking about what I should be doing next—especially when it comes to parenting. Even as I’m waking the girls up and saying good morning, I’m making a mental list of everything we need to get done before we head off to school: get dressed, do hair, have breakfast, make lunches, pack backpacks, etc. As I’m dropping them off at school, I’m planning my work day. And on and on and on, until one of my kids asks for a snack or a little help with an art project and before I even realize it, I’m biting her head off for intruding on my little mental scheduling session.
Now, don’t get me wrong. We (especially parents!) all need to think ahead, anticipate, and plan how we are going to spend our time and get everything done. But it becomes a problem if we’re constantly doing it, especially at the expense of our ability to be present with ourselves and our children.
And so, I’m trying, for just a few moments at a time, to put down the fork, or in most cases, my keys, my cell phone, and the thoughts that just won’t stop coming. This morning, as I was walking my girls to school, I tried to notice each time my mind jumped twenty minutes ahead to when I would be kid-free and in front of my computer, and I tried to bring it back to the sunshine, the breeze, the feeling of my footsteps hitting the ground, and the sound of my daughters’ voices. Before I sat down to write this post, I took a moment to go through my mental to-do list and write everything down so I could focus as much as possible on the writing. And each time I realize that I’m already planning the next bite, I try to slow down and focus on the one right in front of me, because that’s the only opportunity I have to truly savor life.