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Gladys Gifford: Repetitive motions lead to mindfulness

Recently I’ve discovered that ordinary activities of life can pull me into a state of mindfulness, when I’m paying attention.

Whether washing dishes by hand, working a cross-stitch or sweeping the floor, the rhythm of scrubbing lets my mind ramble, to sort out relationships, to parse motivations for attitudes. Even the frenzy of extra elbow grease required to remove stuck-on leavings in a frying pan or built-up grease in the oven frees my mind to live entirely in the moment, oblivious to distractions.

When I’m doing these repetitive motions – sweeping, scrubbing pots and pans, walking for exercise, needlework – I’m not listening to somebody else; I’m listening to myself. There are no earbuds attached to my ears, piping music or stories into my consciousness. Rather, I’m paying attention to what is happening in my mind. Such time can be a source of great calm, a way to disengage from the constant need to be useful, to look busy, attending to work. And these are the times during my days that nurture my creativity.

Our garage has an uneven concrete floor, in need of serious repair. Its eroded surface and cracks collect dust and grime, so when there’s a day that’s bright and sunny and dry, I occasionally sweep it with a wide broom. I have learned to use small, short strokes as I go, in order to avoid raising clouds of dust. The process cannot be hurried. Short, repetitive strokes allow me to gather dust into small windrows, then angle to the opening where the breeze will distribute the dust far and wide. These slow, repetitious movements can become a form of meditation. My mind becomes mesmerized by the rhythm of body and broom. I become unaware of time.

My daily routine usually includes a brisk walk, first thing in the morning. Inside or outside, I log 10 minutes at least, revving up my metabolism and stretching legs and arms. I breathe deeply as the pace and the movement clear my mind, setting me up for new insights.

Counted cross-stitch has a similar effect. Working on a small canvas and with only finger motions, my eye-hand coordination requires intense concentration that blots out all else. Plunge the needle in a hole then bring it up in the adjacent hole, pull thread to tighten and repeat – counting all the while. Time flies by, until my eyes and back tire from bending over the work, motionless.

This is mindfulness for me, when I’m aware of my senses, immersed in the present moment.

Many times the ordinary tasks of daily life become a burden, unless I practice this mindfulness that stills time and offers peace. Such moments are available on most days, if I pay attention.

And my experience echoes the definition offered by Psychology Today, “mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present … living in the moment and awakening to experience.”

I’m not a paragon of mindfulness, by a long shot. Many an afternoon I relax with the most mindless of activities: computer games. These games engage my attention with challenges to beat my previous score, whether in solitaire or mahjong or Scrabble. Here, the repetitive strokes of my fingers on the computer put me into a numb state of mindlessness. The artificial world sucks me in, as time passes me by.

I am not one to indulge in New Year’s resolutions. But this year, I’m hopeful that my attention will catch more mindful moments – even when sweeping snow from the front steps.