This week we come to the sixth and final step, according to Jay Dixit, in learning to live in the moment — mindfulness.
Know that you don’t know
You’ve probably had the experience of driving along a highway only to suddenly realize you have no memory or awareness of the previous 15 minutes. Maybe you even missed your exit. You just zoned out; you were somewhere else, and it’s as if you’ve suddenly woken up at the wheel. Or maybe it happens when you’re reading a book: “I know I just read that page, but I have no idea what it said.”
These autopilot moments are what Harvard’s Ellen Langer calls mindlessness—times when you’re so lost in your thoughts that you aren’t aware of your present experience. As a result, life passes you by without registering on you. The best way to avoid such blackouts, Langer says, is to develop the habit of always noticing new things in whatever situation you’re in. That process creates engagement with the present moment and releases a cascade of other benefits. Noticing new things puts you emphatically in the here and now.
We become mindless, Langer explains, because once we think we know something, we stop paying attention to it. We go about our morning commute in a haze because we’ve trod the same route a hundred times before. But if we see the world with fresh eyes, we realize almost everything is different each time—the pattern of light on the buildings, the faces of the people, even the sensations and feelings we experience along the way. Noticing imbues each moment with a new, fresh quality. Some people have termed this “beginner’s mind.”
By acquiring the habit of noticing new things, says Langer, we recognize that the world is actually changing constantly. We really don’t know how the espresso is going to taste or how the commute will be—or at least, we’re not sure.
Orchestra musicians who are instructed to make their performance new in subtle ways not only enjoy themselves more but audiences actually prefer those performances. “When we’re there at the moment, making it new, it leaves an imprint in the music we play, the things we write, the art we create, in everything we do,” says Langer. “Once you recognize that you don’t know the things you’ve always taken for granted, you set out of the house quite differently. It becomes an adventure in noticing—and the more you notice, the more you see.” And the more excitement you feel.
Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There
Living a consistently mindful life takes effort. But mindfulness itself is easy. “People set the goal of being mindful for the next 20 minutes or for the next two weeks, then they think mindfulness is difficult because they have the wrong yardstick,” says Jay Winner, a California-based family physician and author of Take the Stress out of Your Life. “The correct yardstick is just for this moment.”
Mindfulness is the only intentional, systematic activity that is not about trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, explains Kabat-Zinn. It is simply a matter of realizing where you already are. A cartoon from The New Yorker sums it up: Two monks are sitting side by side, meditating. The younger one is giving the older one a quizzical look, to which the older one responds, “Nothing happens next. This is it.”
You can become mindful at any moment just by paying attention to your immediate experience. You can do it right now. What’s happening this instant? Think of yourself as an eternal witness, and just observe the moment. What do you see, hear, smell? It doesn’t matter how it feels—pleasant or unpleasant, good or bad—you roll with it because it’s what’s present; you’re not judging it. And if you notice your mind wandering, bring yourself back. Just say to yourself, “Now. Now. Now.”
Here’s the most fundamental paradox of all: Mindfulness isn’t a goal, because goals are about the future, but you do have to set the intention of paying attention to what’s happening at the present moment. As you read the words printed on this page, as your eyes distinguish the black squiggles on white paper, as you feel gravity anchoring you to the planet, wake up. Become aware of being alive. And breathe. As you draw your next breath, focus on the rise of your abdomen on the in-breath, the stream of heat through your nostrils on the out-breath. If you’re aware of that feeling right now, as you’re reading this, you’re living in the moment. Nothing happens next. It’s not a destination. This is it. You’re already there.
Stay mindful and just know that you don’t always know. That’s how we grow.
Here’s to having a mindful day!
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