Mindful Reading

Since my reading schedule got thrown off by an absolutely wonderful weekend with friends at the Utah Shakespeare Festival and a trip to Bryce Canyon, you’re getting an extra reading life post instead of another book review.

This year’s library retreat featured a guest speaker, who gave us a three hour seminar on mindfulness. Normally, I’m skeptical about wellness stuff. Woo either turns me off as too spiritual or ungrounded in, say, reality. But this speaker kept things simple while showing us a few exercises to practice mindfulness and reduce stress. I’ve practiced mindful breathing before. I’ve got anxiety, so I’m old hat at slowing down my breathing. Mindful journaling didn’t work for me. My hand couldn’t keep up with my thoughts. Mindful walking made me feel like I suddenly forgot how to walk like a normal person. Mindful listening was awkward for everyone.

Attilio Baccani

When I got home, and picked up The World Doesn’t Require You to finish it, I had a little epiphany. It appears that the best exercise for me is to try mindful reading. This probably won’t work with plot heavy books; sometimes we can’t help racing to find out what happens next. But with a book with particularly evocative writing or a book has a lot of layers to parse, reading slowly and savoring the words pays off in more ways that one. The most relaxing vacations I’ve ever had are the weeks off when I say home and do nothing but read and putter around the house.

During the seminar, the speaker acknowledged that our minds will probably always wander when we try to be mindful. Instead of chastizing ourselves or giving up on the entire exercise, we should consider the act of bringing our attention back to whatever we’re being mindful about as a “rep,” like a push up or a squat. As I read The World Doesn’t Require You, I would catch my eyes jumping down the page to find out where the author was going to be taking me. (Books with footnotes are probably also not a good choice for mindful reading.) I would drag my eyeballs back to the sentence I had been reading before I jumped and refocused on the authors words. I was already enjoying the book a lot. Slowing down deliberately made me pay attention to the author’s use of dialect, amazing scene-setting, and references to real and invented history.

Reading mindfully, I would argue, is not the same as close reading. I wasn’t taking notes or writing in the margins. I wasn’t planning out my review. (At least, I was trying very hard not to be planning out my review.) Instead, I was doing my best to settle into the author’s words to fully experience the sentences like moments. It was as close to meditation as my busy brain can achieve. And I’m content with that. Reading mindfully is a lot more restful for me than trying to pay attention to my muscles as a I walk (honestly, who on earth can do walking meditations without walking around like marionettes?) or even trying to focus on my breathing (which makes me dizzy and not in a good way).

The next time you’re reading a good book, with a smooth pace, give mindful reading a whirl. Slow down and give every word due attention. Don’t let your eyes skip down to the bottom of the page. Try it for a few minutes and see how you feel…then tell me about your reading meditation experiences in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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