It still surprises me how much a simple shift in attention can change everything. In this case, what I've noticed is how the shift in attention from the activity one is doing to the way one transitions into and out of that activity can make such a difference to qualities the activity itself. Sports and work are two examples to draw on as in each case, the preparation and follow-up or warm up and cool down can make all the difference to the immediate experience and lasting impact of the activity.
To give an example, I used to pay quite limited attention to how best to develop strength and skill in sports. Cycling and surfing and examples I'm familiar with. Over the past two years I've paid much more attention to how I warm up on the beach, or how I warm up on the bike before diving in to the main activity. A little bit of Cheng Hsin play and flopping around on the beach or spinning at a high cadence or trying a few wheelies on my bike does wonders for shifting my attention from head and hands to core and legs. Without these shifts I try to surf with my head and a stiff body, or I try to ride fast on my bike with too low cadence or ride up rocky slopes with my attention on my head and shoulders rather than keeping a stable core. In the most literal sense it improves my posture, and whole body awareness.
The shift in attention enabled by preparation also improves my working day. These sports activities are enjoyable and meaningful in themselves, but also have value as a transition into and out of my daily work. Exercising intensely or immersing oneself in the ocean or doing some meditation shifts one's attention and energy and can enable a new perspective or appreciation. Arriving at work after some morning meditation, contemplation and exercise creates the conditions for me to make a better contribution — it's like my posture and relationships to the work is literally and metaphorically improved. I also notice how much easier it is to be present, relaxed and generous in the evenings if I've cycled to and from work, played on the monkey bars in the playground, or done something to consciously shift my energy, body and attention in between home and work.
The ride, swing or play does more than get my body moving. I feel these transition exercises increase the likelihood that I'll successfully process what happened in the day and integrate the learning. That is something like 'stretching' after exercise. I'm surprised how many of us cyclists don't take time to stretch and recover after intense rides. As far as I understand intellectually and through my own experience of my body, good stretching is what enables the processing of toxins, flushing away of lactic acid and speeds the recovery and rebuilding of the muscles. That is, the intense rides are actually 'bad' for you (they destroy your muscles), it's the recovery afterwards that does the good. I think about journaling, writing, blogging or other contemplation in the same way after a working day. If work is a practice you're wanting to get better at, then the time taken to do the integration of learning, recovery and be ready, better and stronger next time is invaluable. But I guess the value of stretching (or journaling) depends on whether your focus is on getting stronger for the next ride, or whether most of your attention is on just enjoying the searing intensity of the ride/work as it's happening, and at the same level at which you've always done it.
There's similarly multiple perspectives on meditation in this context. Meditation is an enjoyable and valuable in itself. And it can be framed in so many other ways. It's not uncommon for me to walk onto the mat and sit on the cushion without any gratitude, appreciation or intention, then meditate, hear the bell 'ding' signalling the end of meditation, leap up and get back on with chores as if nothing happened. In some ways, this misses the point as I leave any awakened awareness on the cushion and plough into my day as unconscious as ever. On other days, I take the time for some further contemplation, make a decision that changes the order of my day or life, or take the time to share a though on Twitter, Facebook or via a blog post like this one. That sort of conscious transition enables the meditation to usefully serve as a 'warm up' for the working day, carrying a curiousity, openness and awareness right through the day.
I guess the real shift in attention is perhaps not to the transitions themselves, instead to how one can be completely present with an open awareness all the time. Aware not only of what's happening now in a sort of narrow, focused way (only seeing the road in front or your tyre, the document on the screen or the wave surging before you), but to have that sort of expansive awareness where your appreciation of that moment is enhanced through understanding the implications or your awareness and action in the bigger context of your day, life, the universe and everything. After all, there's no other time than now and you just might miss the present if you spend all day warming up or preparing for the moment that's yet to come, or cooling down and recovering from what's already passed : )