My father was a freelance artist and worked from home. A lifetime smoker, he would work for several hours and then stand up from his drawing board, stretch his back, and tell my brother and I, “it’s time for a smoke break.” We’d follow him outside, summer or winter, and sit on the back steps for ten to fifteen minutes. Sometimes we would chat, but mostly we would be quiet, sitting still, watching the sky, the yard, whatever caught our eyes.
Yes, part of this was the need of a smoker to get his fix, but looking back now I know it was much more than this. Before the term was in vogue, this was my father, and my brother and I by mimicry, being mindful.
My father didn’t take his smoke breaks just when his back was sore or he needed a nicotine hit, but also when he was creatively stuck, needed work through an artistic trouble spot, to come up with new ideas, or just to step away for a moment. This is what taking a small break in our day, taking the time to do nothing, can give us. And we all need to take it. As reported by Maria Konnikova, author of Mastermind: How To Think Like Sherlock Holmes*, doing this can improve our vital signs, such as blood pressure, and improve cognitive function. She writes:
In recent years, studies have shown that meditation-like thought (an exercise in the very attentional control that forms the center of mindfulness), for as little as fifteen minutes a day, can shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that has been associated with more positive emotional states.
Mindfulness is a form of meditation, but I don’t want to get hung up on that word. Mindfulness is engaging not in thoughtlessness, but rather thoughtfulness. It is not what happens when we walk down the street distracted with a conversation we had earlier, making plans for later, checking our text messages. It is a process of observing, of being present. Of truly seeing. And in this state, we see differently. We think differently. We see new things and arrive at new answers. Our productivity is improved by taking this moment of complete non-productivity.
You can achieve mindfulness by sitting lotus position on your meditation mat, but you don’t have to. You can achieve it sitting on your Adirondack chair on your deck or while running with your dog. Or you can get it between work sessions by going outside and sitting on the steps with your kids for fifteen minutes a day, like my dad did. Skip the cigarettes, though. Those things are bad for you. But the other part? Few things are healthier.