As I mentioned on Day 6, I’m again taking Sharon Salzberg’s Real Happiness Challenge, a 28-day series of brief teachings and guided meditations. This week, the meditations focused on noticing the details, the sensory experience, of things we do every day, often by rote: eating, walking, brushing teeth, drinking tea or coffee, washing dishes, making toast, and so on. These are ready-made opportunities for mindfulness, for turning off the automatic pilot in our brains.
Doing only one thing at a time.
Paying attention to what we’re doing.
These techniques help anchor us in the present, connect us to our experience, ground us, and by piquing our interest and engaging our senses, they can bring more liveliness, curiosity, joy, and meaning to what we do every day.
Because I know that time is always time And place is always and only place And what is actual is actual only for one time And only for one place ... (from T.S. Eliot's ineffable "Ash Wednesday")
Being aware of the moments of our days keeps the days (and weeks, months, years) from passing by without our genuine involvement. When we’re not really paying attention, or when our focus is dispersed in too many directions at once, we can become bored, restless, tired. We may lose track of the days, which seem all the same, a blur of “nothing special.”
And then the years: where did they go? We can locate them in memory when something extraordinary or “eventful” happens — a birth, death, illness, marriage, divorce, graduation, lottery win, bankruptcy, job change, trip or move — against which to measure everything else, but what about all the ordinary time, which is most of our life, lost? (For me, this is why most obituaries, perhaps by necessity, read so shallow — they’re all the pro forma spotlighted events and rarely the day-in-day-out happiness, sorrow, and quirkiness of life and personality.)
Even as I write this, I know that we don’t need to remember the details of each ordinary moment, or an accumulation of these moments, for the years to feel full and significant; what’s happened, what we’ve done, even if unnoted and reflexive, is registered somewhere in us, definitely in our bodies, though it may never appear in any mental index and if you ask me about it, I’ll have no conscious recollection. But I also know through practice, particularly guided mediation, that paying attention to what I’m doing (including breathing), to what I’m sensing, feeling, thinking, does bring more joy, wonder, surprise, intentionality, calm, connection, in those moments at least and perhaps overall.
You Reading This, Be Ready by William Stafford Starting here, what do you want to remember? How sunlight creeps along a shining floor? What scent of old wood hovers, what softened sound from outside fills the air? Will you ever bring a better gift for the world than the breathing respect that you carry wherever you go right now? Are you waiting for time to show you some better thoughts? When you turn around, starting here, lift this new glimpse that you found; carry into evening all that you want from this day. This interval you spent reading or hearing this, keep it for life – What can anyone give you greater than now, starting here, right in this room, when you turn around?
Focusing on routine activities also provides space and time for daily meditation when finding time to meditate as a separate activity feels too difficult or daunting. A minute or two of noticing what we’re doing may feel more doable than 15 minutes of quiet, alone with our streaming thoughts. Salzberg mentions that Thich Nhat Hanh suggested taking a few breaths before picking up a ringing phone, and adds that she’s resolved to practice lovingkindness practice whenever she’s waiting somewhere. These pockets of gifted time are rich.
In general, the technique of these momentary meditations is to bring attention “to your body, to your emotional state, to your thinking, to the quality of relaxation or stress.” The awareness of physical sensations and of what’s happening in our body gives us a “touchstone” that helps connect us to the moment.
Here’s how the food meditation goes:
“First, look at the food. Notice the color, the shape, the folds. Then pick up the food. Feel the texture of the food or perhaps the utensil in your hand. Smell the food, notice any aromas. Bring the food to your mouth. Begin slowly chewing and notice the burst of flavor. Even if you are tempted to reach for more while you’re still chewing, notice that. Chew this bite fully and swallow before reaching for more. … Here’s something we might do mechanically, not really being present for, and not feeling fulfilled by, because we’re not really there for it. “
Crows by Marilyn Nelson What if to taste and see, to notice things, to stand each is up against emptiness for a moment or an eternity— images collected in consciousness like a tree alone on the horizon— is the main reason we’re on the planet. The food’s here of the first crow to arrive, numbers two and three at a safe distance, then approaching the hand-created taste of leftover coconut macaroons. The instant sparks in the earth’s awareness.
Walking meditation can be a good choice when “feeling foggy or drowsy [because it’s energetic]. Walking is also a good alternative to sitting when we feel restless and need to channel the extra energy coursing through our bodies. Walking won’t disperse that energy but will help direct it so that we experience more balance.”
In walking meditation, instead of thinking ahead to where we’re going and what we’ll be doing when we get there, or running through stories or scripts in our head as we walk, or listening to music or podcasts that take us away mentally from where we actually are, or looking for birds and other interesting aspects of nature as we walk, we’re just aware of the physical sensation of the foot lifting, moving, placing, in a continuous cycle. Salzberg makes a point of saying that we don’t need to name these motions or sensations, just notice them, in the body.
The walking can be done at anything from a normal pace to as slow as you can walk without tipping over. If walking in a city or town, you can (and should!) keep an awareness of what’s going on around you even as you attend to the repetitive motion of the feet.
This exercise (and another Movement Meditation she offers) can also be done in a wheelchair or by simply “moving your hand back and forth as the basis for the practice.” Salzberg doesn’t mention it, but I think jogging or running can be meditative in the same way, noticing the placing of each foot each time. Or swimming, with focus on the arc of the arms or kick of the legs. And in fact, there is something meditative, in my experience, in walking while listening to music or attending to the natural world.
These meditations on the physical, bodily sensation of what we’re doing when we’re doing it are another option, one always available to us.
“Starting here, what do you want to remember? / How sunlight creeps along a shining floor?”