Multitasking seems to be a norm. More and more we are texting, talking on the phone, listening to music, watching TV, while carrying on a conversation, preparing a meal, eating dinner, attending a meeting, writing an email, or driving.
Is your goal to optimize your performance and live a happy, meaningfully productive life? If it is, then fully engage in your activity and perform it as perfectly as possible without distraction, anxiety, and strain. This doesn't necessarily mean that you shouldn't multitask. It means that if you do, do it consciously and understand the benefits and liabilities.
A recent quote reminded me of a paradox.
With the spread of mindfulness meditation, we might be adding yet another task to the mix - being mindful.
"... Suzuki Roshi ... said, "When you wash the rice, wash the rice. When you cut the carrots, cut the carrots. When you stir the soup, stir the soup." Though very similar, this is not the same as "be mindful in the kitchen," which makes it sound like you always have two things to do."
The paradox is that when meditating you are doing something, yet, in the end, the intention is to be present, aware and fully engaged in whatever is happening in the moment. You are meditating so that you can be present, undistracted, objective and aware. In effect, you are practicing mindfulness meditation to be mindful, able to do nothing while you are doing whatever you chose to do.
"Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, nonjudgmentally,"
"Paying attention, on purpose," implies an effort
. Effort implies a conscious, active doing.
When doing two things at once your effectiveness on each is reduced. Multi-tasking is often inevitable and useful, but it does have a cost. Attention is divided. The ability to stay focused on a chosen object or activity is degraded.
When being mindful in the kitchen there is not just one but two things to do. Is being mindful an exception? Is it possible to "pay attention, on purpose" without that getting in the way of doing the one thing you are doing - whether it is cutting carrots, or anything else?
Practicing mindfulness is doing something. It requires effort. It is meditating, whether you are doing it in a formal session - sitting and following the breath, repeating a mantra, noticing sensations, feelings, states of mind, thoughts and mental concepts - or informally in daily life by setting wake up reminders, being mindfully aware during a phone call or while walking down the street.
Meditation is a means to effortless awareness.
Effortlessly resting in non-meditative awareness is non-meditation.
Mindfulness meditation, being purposefully attentive, leads to an integration of spontaneous awareness into moment to moment behavior. Non-mediation is just being at ease in the present moment. The effort of paying attention to feelings, thoughts, and all phenomena is a training that leads to simply being aware, relaxed, engaged and easy in whatever you are doing. Meditation enables the arising and recognition of awareness. Awareness is effortless.
What do we mean by not doing?
Not doing is letting things be as they are. You are cutting carrots. Clearly, you are doing something, using the knife and trying for equally sized slices. If there is no awareness, then you might cut yourself. If there is awareness, there is nothing else to do. No need for feeling the body or breath. Just be present. Let distractions go - not chasing them or throwing them away. If they are strong and pull you out of awareness, then apply the right effort to bring yourself back to that effortless state of presence.
When mindfulness ripens, there is the awareness that allows you to just cut carrots. When there is awareness of your mind slipping off and onto some distraction, you are still present and aware. In awareness, the distraction goes, dissolves spontaneously, and you are in the moment cutting carrots. If the distraction does not dissolve, then apply effort, relax and come back to the cutting; letting go into the task at hand.
There is a moving back and forth between non-mediation and meditation; not doing and doing. When you are actively resting in open awareness, there is nothing to do. When you are practicing to cultivate natural awareness then you meditate.
"Simply stay in your own place, in your own condition just as it is. Forgetting self-conscious feelings, we do not have to think "I am meditating." Our practice should be without effort, without strain, without attempts to control or force and without trying to become "peaceful."
Multi- or single-tasking, effectiveness and awareness go together
. The more you are present and aware, focused and moving in the right direction to accomplish your goals, the more effective you will be. Mindfulness meditation is a means to that end.
 "Let Your Passion Cook" by Edward Espe Brown, in
The Mindfulness Revolution, edited by Barry Boyce, pages 80-81
Dzogchen Practice in Everyday Life by HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche