The food writer, Michael Pollan, once said, “When chopping onions, just chop onions.” For one reason or another, that line has stuck with me over time and brought me back to the importance of paying attention to the task in front of me when my mind is already planning tomorrow or next week.
It’s ancient wisdom, as it turns out: “Do not worry about tomorrow,” Jesus says, “for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Easier said than done, Lord.
We live in a time when so many tools and services exist to make our lives easier and more efficient, and yet, have we ever been busier or more overwhelmed by the tasks of everyday life?
There’s a lot of talk these days about the practice of mindfulness — focusing our attention on the present moment instead of letting it run wild and obsessing over the past or the future. A quick Google search yields YouTube videos of mindfulness meditations, articles about how and why we should be more mindful, and books promising to whip our crazy brains into shape.
But what if a slower, more peaceful pace was easier than that? What if it was as simple as chopping onions? What if we could be more connected, more present, more mindful — without another book or guided meditation?
I believe we can. Here are a few practical ways we can slow down and live more mindfully in the present moment.
Slow down — really
I used to find myself heading home from the office, heart racing as I “encouraged” the other drivers to move faster, use their blinkers, and pay attention to the road. Slow-moving traffic made me angry, which meant I walked in the door irritated and snappy. I’d rush through making dinner, running through mental checklists while I did a half-assed job of chopping the onions and tossing the salad — just getting it done so I could move on to the next thing and eventually cross the finish line of the day.
Then, a few months ago I got a flat tire. When my husband suggested I stay off the freeway until it was fixed, I posted a bright pink note on my steering wheel that read: “Take the back roads.”
There’s a difference between cruising along on a road where the speed limit is 35 and stopping and starting at the same speed in rush hour freeway traffic. I had thought for years that it would take longer to get home if I took the back roads, but as it turns out, it took the same amount of time or less. Even if it didn’t save time, the view is better and the traffic is lighter. It leaves me in a peaceful, receptive state, so instead of feeling irritated and rushed, I walk in the door ready for whatever the evening has in store.
Just chop onions
I hate chopping onions. They make my eyes burn and tear and leave me squinting and searching desperately for a dish towel. But I love the way they smell on the stove, turning translucent with garlic as they bubble in a generously buttered sauce pan.
When I’m preoccupied with my worries and mental checklists, I can’t appreciate the simple joys right in front of me in my very own kitchen. The feel of a knife in my hand, the sounds of boiling water, the smell of butter and onions and garlic, the briny bite of my favorite olives, the way a sip of cold white wine rolls down the back of my throat — it all brings my attention to the present moment.
Being aware of what I touch, taste, smell, sight, and sound has a profoundly grounding effect when my thoughts are spinning out of control. By focusing our body on the task at hand, our brain can rest in the present moment.
Make time to reflect
On my worst days, it can be difficult to name a single good thing that happened. So on those days, especially, I try to name three things for which I’m grateful. Recent examples include a particularly good cup of coffee, fresh peonies on the coffee table, a funny meme, a sweet moment with my husband, a text from a friend at just the right time.
No matter what kind of day we’re having, it’s important to draw attention to the simple moments that bring us joy. Taking a moment to lift those moments up in prayer puts us in touch with God, who is providing for us. Learning to trust God’s love orients our inner compass toward joy — it opens our eyes to other ways God is walking with us. It takes intentionality to set aside regular time for this kind of reflection, but being grounded in this way helps us navigate life.
There are lots of benefits to gratitude — it even improves physical health — so noting moments that make us thankful helps us live a rich life. It also can help us pursue a lifestyle that lends itself to more of those moments. We’re all busy — the question is what do you want to be busy doing? Developing a career has its own rewards, but there are other things to value in life. A hobby, meaningful relationships, good books, delicious food — these pursuits might not be productive in a worldly sense, but it’s not irresponsible to intentionally cultivate them.
By focusing on what happened today — not yesterday and not what might happen tomorrow, just today — we can practice Mary Oliver’s timeless instructions for living a rich life: “Pay attention, be astonished, tell about it.”