About one month ago I made marmalade with the Seville oranges that are imported to Canada from Spain in the late winter. Seville oranges are said to make the best marmalade and so, every March, I buy five oranges, add the right amount of sugar and water and one lemon and make a dozen jars of bittersweet marmalade. While stirring the marmalade, watching for the point at which the consistency is the perfect mix of soft but not runny, it occurred to me this year that making marmalade is one of many homemaking activities around which mindfulness can be learned.
Mindfulness is all the rage in mental health these days. It is probably about twenty years since the Buddhist practice of mindfulness began to emerge as helpful in dealing with stress and stressful situations, but its popularity as a treatment for conditions from hypertension to self harm has really developed as the research demonstrating its efficacy has solidified. This short Research Spotlight article from NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine outlines some of the research that has been most convincing: http://nccam.nih.gov/research/results/spotlight/012311.htm What contributes to the credibility of this research is that mindfulness appears to lead to structural changes in the brain when a patient’s symptoms improve.
Mindfulness exercises help patients learn to focus their attention on the present and, in fact, there are many homemaking tasks which require a focus on being so aware of a process that you notice the moment when it is complete – a moment that quickly moves from perfect to overdone. Many who like to cook can acknowledge the times when attention to the present is required. These include the moments when a sauce is about to thicken or marmalade about to gel.
In acquiring mindfulness, one is often instructed to take note of certain recurring signals or events, like clock chimes or a certain time of day, and use those as a particular reminder to stay focused in the present. I like to think of finding those circumstances when observation in the moment actually assists in the task at hand. So many of our daily chores fit the bill that our routines should make it easier to live in the present. As an exercise, I find that having a patient record an outline of their day will actually assist them in finding times to practice mindfulness.
In my own day, such routines as my morning exercise and prayer, my systematic review of my schedule when I get to work or my short walk home all urge me to live in the moment. Who hasn’t been annoyed by those instructions on phone calls to “enter the first few letters” of a contact’s name or to “hold for the next available operator”? Now I see these as an opportunity to let go and enjoy a break from difficult conversations or tasks like writing a report that require consideration beyond the present.
As I write this, I have an image of myself stirring marmalade and lifting up the spoon to see how the liquid forms into drops. Is the liquid moving so slowly that two drops will form on the spoon before the first one drops off? This is one test for “doneness”; another involves putting hot marmalade on a freezing cold plate to see if it congeals. In between tests, I stir and focus on breathing.
I do not know that the marmalade I make tastes any better than that I could buy off a grocery store shelf but I do feel that making my own marmalade contributes to a feeling of satisfaction with my life. The chores of homemaking keep me grounded in what is important – another facet of mindfulness. Why is it for me that mindfulness is linked to housework? Well, is it not curious that the Latin word for hearth is focus? http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=focus That puts mindfulness – and marmalade – in just the right perspective.