I first heard the term “mindfulness” from a psychologist I was seeing in the hope of improving my concentration and, in turn, my job performance, which had declined sharply over the previous several months. My cluelessness can be inferred from my asking a close friend, a practicing Buddhist, whether he was familiar with the concept. I might as well have asked my friend, who has closely followed the Boston Red Sox since the late 1970s, if he knew anything about baseball.
Psychology Today defines mindfulness as “a state of active, open attention to the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feeling from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” The Greater Good Science Center in Berkeley, California, describes the practice as “maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment.”
Mindfulness, I suppose, also can be described as the antonym of absent-mindedness, a state of being I am all too well acquainted with. This is not a recent phenomenon. It predates my cognitive decline by many decades. In elementary school I was notorious for the consistency I maintained in leaving my coat on the playground. The number of baseball caps I have lost over the years could outfit a major league roster. Back in the late nineties, the supermarket that I shopped at was in the practice of placing groceries on a conveyor belt in front of the store. Motorists would pull up and clerks would load the groceries into each car. Once, soon after I learned I had been hired for a new job, representing a major increase in salary over what I was accustomed to as an adjunct-faculty member, I had so many things on my mind – Will I need to purchase a more reliable car? Am I going to need to buy a suit? Do I really want to work at a place where I need to wear a suit? Do I even want to work full-time? – that I left behind my eighty dollars’ worth of groceries on the conveyor belt.
Recently I began working with a neuropsychiatrist on improving my concentration. I think of the exercise as an extreme example of the Slow Food movement. It involves a single golden raisin. First, I was asked to examine the raisin. I observed the crinkled surface, naturally, but also the raisin’s resilience when I held it between my forefinger and thumb. At the directive of my doctor, I lifted the raisin to my ear and listened to the sound resulting from the gentle pressure I was applying. My next instruction was to sniff the aroma of my raisin. It had not occurred to me that a raisin has a fragrance. The odor was sweet, befitting a former grape, and I recalled a quotation from Galileo chalked on a blackboard in front of a Boston restaurant on a sparkling summer afternoon: “Wine is sunlight, held together by water.”
My relationship with my raisin became increasingly intimate. I was allowed to place the raisin on my tongue. I let it lie there for some time, until I was told to hold the raisin gently between my molars, to fully appreciate its texture. Consummation was postponed. But not for long. The molars did their work. The sensation was intense.
How often do we wolf down our food, at home, at our desks, in our cars, while barely noticing what is passing down our gullets? What subtle pleasures are we neglecting?