The downside of my noble pastime, reading

Leo Babauta’s post on mindfulness and single-tasking got me thinking about the ways I multi-task. I’m not one of those rudesbies who talks on the phone while answering email, nooo. How I multi-task is by reading. While eating, and waiting.

But reading is a good thing! Fuels the imagination, creates empathy, promotes critical thinking. And carrying articles around in case you get stuck in line at the post office—efficient!

But I read so that I don’t ever have to be bored.

This pattern is not new. I spent much of middle school with a book strategically hidden, open, under my desk. I spent much of my youth in a dreamy haze, dwelling in Madeleine L’Engle’s world, or Austen’s.

I don’t read much fiction anymore, except on vacation—since I’ve been self-employed, I can’t afford to check out that way, or to stay up all night finding out how the story ends. With fiction, I’m a binge-reader.

So now it’s nonfiction, where keeping my distance is easier. During every solo meal. As with reading while waiting in line, it feels efficient.

The first time I went on a meditation retreat (I didn’t know it was going to be a meditation retreat, but that’s a story for another time), we were asked midway through to spend a day and a half in silence.  No eye contact. NO READING. NO JOURNALING. Just me and my thoughts.

Didn’t know if I’d make it. I did, and even—to my surprise—was able to move past some old pain by gently facing it without distraction. (Note, however: approaching meditation with the goal of Having a Breakthrough kind of defeats the purpose.) Afterward, felt more peaceful. Senses more acute.

So, back to that fear of being bored. Coupled with anxiety about wasting time, and the compulsion to maximize every moment.

Leo’s post reminds me of the classic, and more insidious time-waster: missing my life as moments rush by while I’m focused on something else.

What if, when I ate my meals, I just ate? Just for the next 3 days (not 30, sorry Leo)? What would it be like to pay attention to eating, the way I do on retreat?

Tried it this morning. Um, not fun. Found myself not savoring, but eating faster than usual, so I could Get On With The Day. Ironically, the reading-while-eating habit relaxes me and slows down my eating speed, a healthy thing, even as it means I can’t tell you whether what I ate was delicious or not.

Nevertheless, mindful eating feels like something worth staying with. For 3 days. Then if I go back to reading-while-eating, perhaps I can do it out of choice, not fear.


  1. Ulla Hennig says:

    I decided to stop reading-while-eating when I managed to get a spoonful of yoghurt placed very nicely on my jeans. I enjoy reading the newspaper from page 1 to the last page on the weekend, and eating a yoghurt was just something that had to go with it – till the moment when the yoghurt decided to miss my mouth and fell on my trousers. And then I noticed that I savoured it, concentrating on the flavour of fruit and yoghurt.

  2. Janet Bailey says:

    @Ulla – Ah, the old food-on-the-clothes wakeup call!

    At Day 3, the single-tasking is still a struggle, but I did enjoy that pear this afternoon.

  3. Oh, Janet–you must live in my brain! I’ve wrestled with this “problem” (not entirely convinced it is, which is why the quotes are there) all my life, ever since I read the backs of cereal boxes over breakfast because I wasn’t allowed to read books at the kitchen table.

    I have *always* read while eating…well, when I’m alone, that is. Sometimes I’ve tried the whole mindful eating thing, but I get very uptight. I congratulate you on your three days–how did it go?

    When I want to feel better about the whole issue, I remind myself of the story I read years ago about the Zen teacher D.T. Suzuki (I think I got the initials right) who was confronted by one of his students when he was discovered reading while eating. And I paraphrase:

    Student: But teacher, you always tell us, “When you eat, eat. When you read, read.” How can you be doing this?

    Suzuki: Simple. Just remember–when you eat and read, eat and read.

  4. Janet Bailey says:

    @Michelle – “when you eat and read, eat and read” — ROFL, I think that will be my new motto! Can’t say the 3 days of attempted-mindful-eating led to any epiphanies, or even much savoring (except for that one pear), but it did make me aware, once again, of how I rush through things.

    Happy to report, though, that the breathing-during-computer-download campaign is still going strong.

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