My friend Jack worked fifteen-hour days non-stop for months. What sustained him through this marathon was the thought of his planned trip to Hawaii at the end of the project, when he’d have nothing to do but lie on a beach for two weeks. When the day finally arrived and the job was done, he rushed to the airport, flew across the ocean, dropped his suitcase at the hotel and hurried out to the beach. A couple of hours later he texted me: “Having a wonderful time. Wish I was here.” After having spent months in goal-directed, “doing mode,” when he finally had a few days to rest in “being mode,” he found that just lying around doing nothing was pure torture. His mind compensated by turning even his vacation into a project; and within an hour of arriving, he was already planning what he’d do when he went back to work.
Jack’s experience highlights a problem that seems to be getting worse for more and more of us – the difficulty that modern people have of simply staying present to what is happening right now. We seem to spend most of our waking moments leaning into the future. When we arrive at some goal we may allow ourselves a brief moment of rest and satisfaction, but then we’re off and running again. The result is that we are always in a hurry, late, pressed for time. We don’t live in a relaxed state because in every waking hour of our lives we’re trying to get somewhere else.
This must be partly why so many people are talking about mindfulness these days. People describe this practice as meditation, which makes it sound like some painfully difficult technique which takes years to master. But it’s defined as just “a state of awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally, to things as they are.” In other words, “mindfulness” means being present. Paying attention. Being here. Now. Where we are. Already.
What is now known as meditation probably began thousands of years ago when our ancestors discovered how to make fire. They probably spent many nights sitting in silence around a fire, just watching it. Its many benefits as a practice – in promoting calm, clarity, and happiness – probably resulted, over the centuries, in the development of more systematized practices. But one of the attractions of camping for people even today is just this opportunity to sit quietly around a campfire at the end of the day and feel the deep tranquility and inner silence that the experience induces. We all know how to be “mindful.” Approached in the right spirit, nothing is easier.
Today, mindfulness practice is being sold as a “stress reduction” practice. It certainly can lower stress – dramatically. But when we try to make ourselves be still because we think it will be good for us, and not because we enjoy it, our minds and bodies resist the experience. We make sitting quietly and doing nothing into just another thing to do. We time it. We do it in uncomfortable postures. No wonder we say “I can’t meditate.” We miss the point of the whole practice.
A lot of people, in my experience, have more success if, instead of trying to “learn to meditate” they focus instead on taking several “mindful pauses,” during the day. To do this, just stop what you’re doing, relax, and drop your attention into your body. Feel your body from the inside. Pay attention to your sensations and feelings, not by naming them, but by directly touching them with your awareness. Notice your “emotional weather.” Be aware of how you’re feeling, but don’t go into any mental stories about why you are feeling the way you are feeling. Take a few deep breaths and notice how breathing feels from inside your lungs. This simple practice provides a way to step out of automatic pilot mode, out of rumination or reactivity to strong emotion, and to reconnect and open to the present moment. You can think of it as a course correction, away from grasping onto stress, and toward just resting for a few moments in the spaciousness of the present moment. A simple practice like this can become habit forming. There is nothing difficult about this, but the positive benefits are amazing.