~ awake in this moment, at home in the world ~

One Sip At a Time

November 1, 2010
I'm driving to the apple orchard on a soggy Saturday afternoon, listening to my favorite public radio quiz show. A cell phone sits on my lap with a recorded message blaring through the speaker, telling me I have five more minutes to wait before I can talk to an airline reservation agent.

A mug of milky Earl Grey tea cools in the cup holder by my side, and every few minutes I reach for a sloppy sip. All the while I offer my son a running commentary about our journey through the hilly countryside.

"Look at those horses in the field," I sing as I reach my arm blindly back toward his car seat, in a hopeless attempt to shove another piece of graham cracker into my son’s mouth.

The stoplight ahead turns yellow, and impulsively I gun the engine so we can slip through the intersection before it turns red. And then suddenly I change my mind and slam my foot onto the brake. The screech of the tires jolts me awake.

"What am I doing?" I ask myself, looking first at the cell phone, then at the spilled tea, and then finally at the perplexed expression on my son's delicate face.

My son and I are out for an afternoon adventure to pick up a cool jug of cider and a peck of juicy apples, and maybe to stop by the book shop before heading home. We have no one to meet, and we have no reason to be in any particular hurry. Nonetheless, my ferocious multitasking has left me breathless and frazzled.

I turn off the cell phone, and instantly feel a little calmer. I turn off the radio and breathe another sigh of relief. I close tight the lid of my commuter mug, hand the rest of the cracker to my son and feel an immense load lift from my soul.

The light turns green. I place two hands on the wheel and settle my eyes firmly on the road ahead.

Tackling one task at a time feels infinitely sane. The world grows brighter and clearer, and for the first time all day I feel truly mindful of the sights and sounds around me. I'm no longer gunning my inner engine but instead settling cleanly in the here and now. And all because I’ve pared down my to-do list to one single task at a time.

I feel so soothed, so relieved, so happy to do less that I resolve to stay on the lookout for other sweet spots in my day when I can practice the fine art of doing just one thing. And it doesn't take me long at all to discover that there are many.

When my son nuzzles in to my chest to nurse, I catch myself picking up an outdated magazine. I pause, consider the possibilities, and then toss The New Yorker onto the floor. I place my hand on my son's lean back, and sink into the sensations of the moment. My breath deepens, my muscles slacken, and I feel myself settling into an oasis of calm. The sweetness of this simple, quiet moment with my child overwhelms me, and the recognition that I had almost trampled right over it brings tears to my eyes.

Later that evening, I settle in front of the computer to check my email with a cup of tea in one hand and sliver of rich, dark chocolate in the other. Just as I'm debating which hand to reach toward my mouth, I stop. I decide to choose just one activity: sip, chew or surf. The jasmine tea wins, and I sit quietly in my favorite chair - my back long and straight, my cheeks moistened by the steam - and enjoy every sweet, fragrant mouthful. Another sweet and peaceful moment has just stitched its way into my day.

The next morning, I opt out of a harried attempt to simultaneously answer phone calls, throw a load of laundry into the washer, and trail behind my son in a futile attempt to maintain some sense of order in his wake. Instead, when he hands me a purple scarf and asks me to play his favorite John McCutcheon tune, I abandon my other tasks and turn on the stereo.

My son swooshes his scarf, I swirl mine, and we dance. He smiles mischievously from across the room, looks directly into my eyes, and then with a running start hurls himself into my arms. I laugh almost as hard as he does as we spin about the room, clutching tightly to each other, watching our scarves slip through the air.

With these giggles, my full-blown devotion to mono-tasking is born. The world may be bustling with multi-taskers, but I decide to shift into the slow lane, where the drivers aren’t weaving and swerving as they talk on the phone while listening to the radio, reaching for a sip of latte, and more.
“One task at a time” becomes my new motto. One step at a time, one sip at a time, one breath at a time.

The first thing I notice as I pare my life down to a single task per moment, as best I can, is that the world grows a little quieter. I'm surprised by how much background music I have injected into my world in the form of the droning voices on the radio, small talk on the telephone, and the endless loop of music spilling from my computer.

And then I notice that as I choose to do fewer things at once, I feel like I’m actually getting more accomplished. I'm not sure whether I'm truly growing more efficient, or whether I just feel less hassled as I plow through my daily to-do list.

Whichever it is, I like it. I am surprised to recognize how much frenzy and commotion I had piled into my life simply through my hurried ambition to get everything done at once.

My days begin to feel a little airier and my breath feels like it’s slowing to a more leisurely pace. I feel brighter and more playful. My mind grows quieter and my meditation practice is reborn.

And for the first time in months I find myself pulling my favorite poetry books off of the shelf and savoring the sweet peace I find within them. A good poem, after all, can’t be appreciated when you’re on the run. You have to sit still, breathe deeply, and listen carefully in order for its magic to slip under your skin.

As I dive a little deeper into my sip-by-sip experiment, I ask myself what rests beneath our multi-tasking habits. Are we so busy that we need to do four things at once? Are we afraid of the peace and quiet that comes with doing less? Do we buy into the unspoken notion that a busy body must surely mean that one is valued and important? Or are we merely victims of the thoughtless multitasking habit that seems to have overtaken our entire go-go world?

I’m not sure. But as I ponder these questions I am surprised to discover that beneath my ceaseless activity lies a funny combination of carelessness and greed. Somewhere, it seems, I’ve picked up a notion that more is always better. It’s as if I’m wandering through a smorgasbord, mindlessly filling my plate with salad, sweet potatoes, rice, beans and bread, without once asking myself whether I am even hungry at all.

Do we need to heap more onto my life’s plate just because we can? Is more necessarily better? Are two tasks better than one? And what happens when we stop and say, “Wait, I’m full, I’m happy with just this much and no more?”

I begin to understand more deeply the gift of a simple yoga practice, where we rest our awareness cleanly and compassionately on the sensations of the single stretch and deliberate breath of the present moment. Our minds learn to focus on the task at hand, and our impulses are slowed enough for us to examine them more closely. The yoga mat, I learn, is the perfect training ground for a mind wishing to savor the sweetness of one simple sensation at a time.

And meditation, I decide, is merely an opportunity to practice the extreme edge of mono-tasking. What could be more basic than sitting quietly, observing the breath, and focusing on the raw ingredients of the here and now?

Day after day, on my mat I learn that a few deep breaths and a few quiet moments of settling and softening are enough. I taste with renewed contentment the bounty of the present moment. And I begin to see more clearly that less is often more, or at the very least, less is almost always enough.
As I continue shedding my frenzied, pile-it-on habits, I begin to wonder what would happen if the whole world began to explore the “less is more” approach to daily living. What would happen to our highways, our relationships, our words, and our waistlines, if we kept our hands and our minds focused on one task at a time instead of carelessly struggling to juggle it all?

My hunch is that many of us have become such habitual multi-taskers that we’ve actually forgotten how to slow down. We’re so used to gulping that we barely remember how to sip. But my guess is also that if each of us devoted just a few minutes each day to focusing our attention cleanly and clearly on one single task before us - whether it's downward facing dog, an evening commute or a few moments with a loved one - our world would instantly grow happier, kinder and saner.

Life is busy, and I do want to be flexible and adaptable enough to know how to juggle a phone call, a load of laundry, and a looming deadline with finesse when I’m in a crunch. But when the afternoon ahead promises to be full of blue sky and easy breathing, I want to be able to shake the need to pile ever more onto my plate and then return to mindfully taking one step at a time. I want to move slowly and deliberately enough to enjoy each step, every breath, and each sweet and spicy mouthful of Earl Grey tea… one sip at a time.

This essay was originally published in Yoga International (May 2006)