Slow down, find the gap between thoughts about the past and the future, and discover the loveliness of an ordinary moment.
Like a new year’s resolution, my commitment to give up hurrying for an entire year initially felt overly ambitious. Soon, though, I found that I could move very, very quickly without letting my mind engage in hurrying. In fact, before long it became obvious that hurrying had less to do with how fast I moved and more to do with my agitation and preoccupation with being somewhere I was not.
As I stopped fixating on where I was headed next, I became increasingly aware of the loveliness of the ordinary moments I’d been missing—the warmth of the sun on my face, the touch of my feet on the ground, the twittering of the birds in a nearby tree. So much that had escaped my attention came alive. The journey of going places became as important as the arrival; instead of waiting for something to begin or end, I discovered the pleasure of attending to what was happening right before me. And so, I have to admit, I’ve never been tempted to make hurrying part of my life again.
Life can be filled with countless lost moments. In the haste of juggling the demands of family, work, friends, and the needs of your own body and mind, your connection with the present is often replaced by a preoccupation with the future. Lost in thought and busyness, your attention is prone to simply slide over the surface of life. It is all too easy to miss the simple moments that make your heart sing: a child’s laughter, a crisp snowflake resting on the windshield, the beat of your own heart.
You live and breathe amid the miracle of life. But for it to touch your heart, you need to be present. The precious moments of calm and stillness your heart longs for are born of your willingness to live the moment you are in. Yes, this very moment.
Addicted to Intensity
If you examine your life, you’ll probably find that you are far more attentive to the dramatic and intense experiences that present themselves than to the moments when nothing seems to be happening. Excitement, success, love, and happiness are feelings you no doubt welcome and heroically pursue. And pain and sorrow generally inspire a heroism all their own as you strive to avoid or resist anything that might cause such discomfort.
You may find that it is only when all of your efforts at avoidance and distraction have been exhausted that you are willing to reluctantly attend to the difficult, and often you greet it not with curiosity about what the moment may hold, but with an agenda of fixing or getting rid of all that disturbs your heart.
Moments of drama have value if you approach them with mindfulness—they can heighten your awareness and awaken you to your experience. This point became crystal clear one day when I found myself sitting on a train beside a young man whose face and body were decorated with piercings. I asked if it wasn’t excruciating to have so much inflicted on his body. He answered, “It is deeply painful, but it makes me feel so alive.”
While you may not wear souvenirs of pain right on your face for all to see, chances are good that you, too, are an intensity addict, focusing much of your attention on life’s pains and pleasures. A roller coaster ride, an exhilarating meditation, the excitement of a new love, or an exotic vacation offer a longed-for wakefulness and a sense of being fully alive. A broken heart, an illness, a lost opportunity, or a nasty argument can bring pain but can also capture and enliven your attention. Even routine busyness, which can be exhausting, offers apparent meaning, direction, and identity.
The dramas of life give the ego a sense of identity, so it’s only natural that your mind holds fast to the pains and pleasures and duties it perceives. And yet there are so many events in life that are simply ordinary, neither exciting nor disturbing. Trees grow, birds fly, the sun shines, the rain falls. You go from morning to night breathing, walking, sitting, and moving—meeting countless moments, people, and events that you may barely notice.
Within these ordinary moments, the tendency is to disconnect; in general, these moments feel undeserving of your attention. You dismiss the ordinary as boring: lacking in richness, intensity, and completeness. Accustomed to externalizing happiness and vitality, you may begin to detect an inner unease or discontent in the midst of any moment that is neither dramatic nor intense.
But no one has a mind filled only with lovely, uplifting thoughts or a body always bursting with health and vitality. None of us has a meditation practice that is continually exciting and rapturous. Your days have countless ordinary moments—sitting on the bus, shopping, preparing a meal, answering the telephone, and walking from one place to another as you attend to all the ordinary tasks of your life. These moments are not less worthy because they are lacking in drama. They are filled with observations to delight in, strangers’ hearts that can touch your own.
Delight Lives in You
Sometimes the ordinary can seem to deprive you of purpose and consequently of identity. To experience non-doing—to simply observe life instead of clinging to its most outrageous ups and downs—appears at first deeply uncomfortable in its unfamiliarity.
Often you’ll find yourself using quiet moments as a springboard for the pursuit of some new, more exciting event. But if you can shed your intensity addiction long enough to experience the ordinary moments in your life, you will find that they are all doorways to the richness and vitality that live within your own heart. Instead of relying on a rush of external events to delight you, you will quickly find the delights of connecting to life just as it is, in this very moment.
When you celebrate the ordinary moments in life, you begin to connect with all that has gone unnoticed in both your inner and outer life. Awareness begins to permeate not just the juicy moments but the plain ones, too. And you begin to question the human inclination to externalize both happiness and unhappiness. You start to examine the long-held belief that your sense of wakefulness depends upon intensity.
By fostering awareness on your meditation cushion and bringing it into your daily life—simply noticing the normal sights and sounds that you often rush past or disregard—you begin to awaken your capacity to be delighted. Delight does not live on a tropical beach or in a fantastic meal with friends. It lives within your own heart. When you honor each moment unconditionally by giving it your attention, you can’t help but encounter delight in the small moments. This is living in a sacred way, embracing with equal interest the lovely, the difficult, and the countless moments in your life that are neither pleasant nor unpleasant. Stepping out of an addiction to intensity, you reclaim lost moments in your days—you reclaim your life and the capacity for delight that lives within you.
Try It: Meditating on the Ordinary
Settle into a relaxed meditative posture. Close your eyes and rest your attention within your breathing. Scan your whole body, noticing the spectrum of sensations and feelings present in this moment. Notice how your attention is drawn toward those sensations that are either pleasant or unpleasant. Be aware of how you respond to these sensations—the way you delight in the pleasant and resist the unpleasant. Move your attention through your body, sensing the places where there’s no sensation—the palms of your hands, your ears, the place where your lips touch. Bring your attention to these areas and feel how your interest, sensitivity, and calmness bring them to life. How can you see them in a new way? Sense what it means to rest within the ordinary, exploring the ease and peace you find.
Expand your attention to the range of external sounds. Notice the sounds that are pleasant and those that grate upon you. Sense the way you are attracted to those sounds you enjoy and resist those that are unpleasant. Notice the sounds of the ordinary—the hum of your refrigerator, the wind outside your window, the car passing on the street. Explore what it means to listen deeply to those sounds and to just rest in pure listening.
Bring your attention to the spectrum of thoughts passing through your mind—planning, remembering, worrying—attend to them all equally with a calm, unbiased attentiveness that sees their arising and their passing. What would it be like to rest in the seeing, allowing the mind to do what a mind does, without taking hold of any of the thoughts that appear?
Expand your awareness to receive everything that is present in this moment—your body, feelings, thoughts, sounds. Explore what it is to receive the moment, to rest in awareness. Sense the loveliness born of interest, connection, and ease, and the way your world is awakened by the attention you bring to it. What would it mean to bring these qualities into your life, to attend wholeheartedly to all that you neglect or dismiss?