Mindful Immersion

Part 1 of a Five Part series on Techniques You Can Use to Start Practicing Mindfulness

To Do or Not to Do

One thing that you can do to practice mindfulness is to perform a routine task as though you were doing it for the first time. Paying attention to each step instead of mindlessly rushing through it is sometimes referred to as mindful immersion.

It often seems as though we live in a culture that is driven by the To Do List.

We put everything onto that list and we take pride in checking items off it. We need to pack the most into each day because we feel like we can never do enough.

This way of living presents several obstacles to our peace and happiness. First, it leaves us tired and depleted. Even though we think we should feel energized after working, volunteering, driving the kids to soccer practice or a martial arts class, picking up dry cleaning, taking the dog to the vet and working out…

We don’t feel energized. We feel exhausted and just a little like we don’t give a damn about anything. Or anyone.

Look, we all lead busy lives. None of us (or maybe one person reading this) are living in a monastery or can afford to stay on a retreat for the rest of our lives. But we can find the time to treat certain activities as sacred and do them with our full attention.

Another problem with living in a state of constant ToDo-ness is that you don’t perform routine tasks with the same care that you otherwise would. This can lead to mistakes that cost you dearly in time and in terms of stress, and sometimes financially as well.

You order the wrong birthday cake for a party. You make airline reservations on the wrong date. You forget to pick up bagels for the meeting. You don’t give the dog groomer instructions on what you want and then are upset when the result isn’t what you wanted.

Finally, when we accept this kind of life as a ToDo-er we believe that this is a normal state of affairs. Things just get done in a half-assed manner, or if they are done well, we have no memory of doing them after the fact.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Let’s Try Mindful Immersion

An easy exercise in mindful immersion can be centered around something we all do (hopefully!) multiple times daily: washing our hands.

We can take a moment to look over our hands, noting any surface dirt that needs to be removed. We pay attention to the feel of the water faucet as we turn on the water and adjust the hot and cold settings. As we put our hands under the water, we feel the temperature of the water and its force as it touches our skin: is it a rush of water from the faucet or a light stream?

When we take the soap in our hands (or dispense it from a soap dispenser) and begin to produce a lather, we can take a deep breath and allow ourselves to notice the feeling of the soap as it touches our skin. We may also smell the scent of the soap. We may lift our hands towards our face and take a deep breath of the scent of the soap. Does it have a floral scent, a fresh scent, or maybe just a utilitarian soap smell?

Obviously there’s a lot of tactile sensation to this task, and so we can make a deliberate effort to bring our other senses into play. We notice the sounds of the water and maybe other ambient sounds around us. If we are in a public restroom there may be any number of other things that come into play.

The name of this website, Eat a Tangerine, comes from a mindful immersion exercise.

When we take a tangerine (or any fruit) into our hands and notice its beauty and we look deeply we can see that it is the result of a lot of time and of conditions being just right: the sun, the soil, the climate, the people who grow and pick the fruit, must all come together to put that tangerine into our hands at this moment. When we peel and eat the tangerine slowly, mindfully, one piece at a time, not only does the tangerine become real, but we ourselves become more real, and so do our lives.

A Few Helpful Observations

For some of us it may take a little time to be able to do a simple task with complete focus. We have to acknowledge that pretty much everything is working against us: our past, our friends, our family, our culture, our work environment, and pretty often we ourselves work against us. We don’t want to be seen as slackers. But consider this: you are still performing the task at hand. It is still getting done. You are merely putting in the work of actually experiencing it.

The one rule that applies to this exercise is that you have to try to commit to performing this little, routine task out of time. In other words, you need to try not to rush the task at hand because you want to get to another, possibly more pleasurable activity.

In The Miracle of Mindfulness Thich Nhat Hahn discusses it using the example if washing the dishes. You can clean the dishes in order to have clean dishes. That is a necessity. It’s a task that needs to be done. You can also clean the dishes in order to clean the dishes. There is no reason there. Maybe you can not clean them.

“If, while washing the dishes, we think only of the cup of tea that awaits us, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing the dishes to wash the dishes. What’s more, we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.”

The Miracle of Mindfulness, P.5

One of the things that mindful immersion does is force you to slow down the task that you are doing. Keep in mind that multi-tasking is sometimes necessary but that you cannot keep it up 24/7 as a way of life. Slowing down to the speed of life is all about going with the flow instead of trying to push the river.

We’re talking about taking one or two routine tasks that we perform every single day and slowing it down for just that one time. That’s it. We’re not talking about a day of immersion here (although some people do that), just a couple of instances per day. You can do that. Remember that busy is a lie and that you’ll ultimately get a lot more done if you take a few moments during your day to really pay attention to what is going on.