I was baking a cake this morning. It struck me that the way I bake has changed subtly since I started to practice mindfulness, and that these changes are a direct result of my regular mindfulness practice.
There was a time when I regularly baked, getting up early each Saturday morning to make a fresh cake for the refreshments stall at my daughter's swimming club later in the day. This baking was all about the end product, coming out with a good cake as quickly as possible so I could get on with my other plans for the day. I took a break from doing this in recent months when I decided to change to a vegan diet, mainly because I was unsure about how to bake without eggs and butter.
Returning to the task after a few months, using new ingredients and with a regular mindfulness practice to support me, I noticed several differences.
Today, the baking wasn't all about the end product. Not rushing to the finish line meant that I had the opportunity to really connect with the process of baking. The smells, colours and textures of the ingredients, their changes as I mixed them together and the gradual transformation of a selection of individual ingredients into a cake were a joy to witness. Even the sensations and smells of the simple tasks of washing my hands and dishes were rich and varied experiences enhanced by the simple focus of my attention. The simple choice to bring awareness to each stage of the baking process helped me not only to notice each ingredient, each step of the process in a new way but also to appreciate each item more. Previously, I have often thought nothing of what it may have taken to bring an ingredient or item into my home. The simple act of paying attention brought home the realisation that each ingredient had been brought into my home only because of many factors: forces of nature involved in crop growth, the work of many people locally and far from home, my good fortune in having the opportunity and means to simply to out to the local shop and buy whatever I might need to bake a cake.
During this process, distractions arose as normal. In baking mindfully, I responded to these distractions by noticing that they were there. I chose not to follow the initial thoughts that arose about the rest of my day, work, family or any of the other topics that came up. Rather, each time I focused my attention back on the simple act of preparing, mixing, baking ingredients. In this way, the task became a natural anchor, an activity which I was engaged in which I could choose to bring my attention back to whenever I noticed that it wandered.
For me, this is one of the important aspects of mindfulness. It is not about holding the mind or attention on to a particular focus without deviation. Rather it is about noticing thoughts and other distractions that arise, and being able to make a choice. Without awareness I might be lost in thought for hours of the day. Mindfulness reduces this sense of being lost in unawareness, at the mercy of our own thoughts and allows us to choose again and again, where would I like to be directing my attention just now. This simple choice can be emotionally stabilising and lead to rewarding outcomes, such as an awareness of the wonderful experiences that are always around us but that we may miss if we fall into automatic pilot and will often take for granted.
Of course, a formal mindfulness practice is not necessary in order to bake a cake mindfully. Many people will do this naturally, enjoying the act simply for what it is. It is an example of how any routine activity can be transformed by the simple power of attention which is what we learn to focus more in the present moment with our mindfulness practice.
The cake was lovely.