“Children are all foreigners.”
Children have a precious talent. They become enamored so easily, and by anything. Take a walk through a park with a young child, and it doesn’t take long before he’s stopped, crouched on the side of the path, captivated by a red leaf or line of marching ants. Wide-eyed and oblivious to you and everything else, he just watches. He’s become enraptured by a curious sight that is — to him — a miracle.
About six years ago, when I was at my most miserable and unpleasant, I remember being asked by a concerned family member, “Well when were you happy?”
I had to think about it. “When I was a kid,” I answered, vaguely aware that it was not really an exaggeration. In particular I remembered the feeling of sheer abundance of summer break: sixty straight days of nothing but exploration and imagination.
Racing bikes down the trails by the river. Exploring the undergrowth for cool-looking bugs. Making up clubs and secret handshakes on a whim. Building forts.
We never seemed to have any ambivalence about what we did. An idea would occur to us, and then we’d be right in the middle of it, absorbed completely.
By age nineteen I had the distinct sense that I had lost something vital: a feeling of possibility and wonder in life.
This feeling of lack grew intensely as I bumbled through college. During the height of my unhappiest period, the elusive quality of wonder appeared frequently in dreams, which only made waking life that much more awful. I wanted it so bad, and I thought it was gone forever.
Eventually I recovered from my funk and began to experience the feeling of wonder more and more, at first by happenstance, and then by deliberately cultivating it. I’ve discovered several ways to do it, and in this article I’ll share an easy one that could open your eyes to a whole host of wonder-making possibilities.
Everyone’s life is composed primarily of repetitive everyday events that seem unremarkable. Making dinner, walking to your car, buying a newspaper, dropping files in someone’s in-basket.
These moments make up 90-something percent of every life, but they are so routine and ordinary that you’ll never look back on them or recount them to someone else. They’re boring. We go through their motions so we can get to the parts of life we really want.
It is worth asking this question: What is the quality of that 90+ per cent of your life? Do you, like many, dismiss the bulk of your time on earth, leaning towards certain more exciting moments in the future?
Kids find wonder everywhere with ease, but as we grow up we seem to pick up the troublesome habit of ignoring the present moment in favor of more important ones that may happen later. We think about what we have to do in the office while we are still showering. We think about being off work while we are at work. We think about 4:30 when it’s 2:30. We think about Friday when it’s Thursday.
The causes of this common habit are many, and I will explore them in another article. For now, suffice it to say that most of us feel like we’ve lost most of our capacity for bewilderment, somewhere between childhood and high school.
With a bit of attention, we can get it back.
Coming back to our senses
One eye-opening method is to incorporate the idea of ritual into your daily tasks. When you think of the word ritual, some bizarre images may arise in your mind: hooded druids, incense, green tea, ceremonial masks, skulls with candles on them, maybe. Forget those images. You don’t need any special supplies. What you do in your rituals isn’t even important. Any action, from putting a CD in the stereo, to reading a story to your child, to going to the mailbox to get the paper, can become vivid and poignant scene.
It doesn’t even need to be something you do often. The one thing that all rituals have in common is that they are performed with attention. The participants are fully absorbed in what they are doing, because they believe their actions are important.
Essential to this idea is respect for the things and people involved. Throughout your rituals, recognize the value and usefulness of objects as you pick them up. Recognize the sensitivities and virtues of people as you interact with them. Carelessness and haste have no place here.
The purpose of ritual is to remind you that what you are doing is significant simply because it is what you are doing right now. Rituals need not have any lofty spiritual or religious pretensions; we’re just trying to cultivate attention. You don’t need to light candles or burn frankincense.
The ritual may be a single action, or a series. For example, when I leave my apartment to go to work in the morning, I often conduct it as something of a ritual.
First I remind myself not to rush. With undivided attention, I perform the following steps, or similar ones:
The Turning off of the Lights – The bedroom, then the kitchen, then the living room. As I snap each switch off, I observe the stark instant when the room changes character, from inviting and alive, to dormant and still. I go into the foyer.
The Donning of the Jacket and Shoes – Ah my grey jacket… my holy armor for the journey to work. Light rain is no threat to me now. I pay attention to its weight and feel as I put it on. Without straining or balancing awkwardly, I slip each shoe onto a socked foot and feel my readiness to be outside, rain or shine.
The Assembly of the Work Bag, Sunglasses, Cell Phone, Bagged Lunch and Daybook – Essential supplies, all of them. They promise to provide for the immediate needs of my mind and body throughout the day. How lucky am I to carry with me the tools and supplies I need to feed myself, clothe myself, and protect my body and eyes from the elements, and – most amazingly – beam my voice through the ether to virtually anyone on the planet? I truly am a 21st century superequipped superman.
The Checking of the Attitude – Am I looking forward to work? Hesitant? Leaning towards the weekend? Fearful? Excited?
The Exit and Locking of the Door – I step through and slip in my brass key with the worn rubber ring on it. Creak. Thud. Click. My little box of possessions is now locked and waiting for my return. I find myself in the hallway. It smells like dust and electric heater.
The March down the Corridor – There is a large picture window high up above the stairway at the end of the hall, giving me a living snapshot of this particular morning. As I pass each door, I hear muted bits of morning newscasts, groggy breakfast-table conversations, and frying eggs. Each one fades in and then out into the next one.
The Descent of the Staircase, and Exit – The foyer is always stuffy, but both doors push open easily and I don’t hurry my pace one bit. I push the exit door slowly, unsure if someone is on the other side. I open it with the same wonder and curiosity as I would an unfamiliar door. For a moment I think of Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, peering through the widening crack of her front door after the tornado has dropped her house somewhere else.
The Crossing of the Parking Lot – As I exit the muggy foyer of the apartment I am always greeted with a new air and soundscape. Sometimes sunny with chirping birds, sometimes rainy with a breeze, sometimes fog and a passing train. Today it is cool and clear, the asphalt is dry. I head over to my shiny, black machine.
The Seating of the Pilot in the Car – I swing open the door, heave my bag onto the passenger seat, lower myself in, and close the door. Silence, or near to. I buckle up and turn the key, awakening my miraculous machine into a purring state of readiness. My ancestors would have killed for such a powerful device. And through good fortune and my own hard work, I have secured one for myself.
The Piloting of the Vehicle – Careful not to become impatient, I back the contraption out, shift into D, and glide through the lot, relaxed and smiling in my protected, upholstered throne. I turn onto the main drag and push in the accelerator, as the breeze whirling by my window picks up…
The above is just a small taste of the exclusive details available in the moments we usually miss. It may sound laborious or stilted, but all flows rather fluidly, because I do not let my mind or my body poise themselves to perform the next step until the current one has been seen through to completion. I am not thinking of sitting in my car while I am still walking over to it. I’m just paying attention to what it feels like to walk over to the car. Most of the time I’m not thinking at all, I’m concentrating on the physical feeling of what I’m doing.
The Thought Habit
When you’re trying to stay focused on the actions, thoughts will come up and attempt to occupy your attention again. Most thoughts are not useful in the moment; they’re just conditioned mental reflexes, and there are triggers all over the place. To keep your attention on what you’re doing, make a general policy of dumping a train of thought unless the thought determines the next action you take. Nineteen times out of twenty, it doesn’t, and you’re better off ditching it.
The whole operation doesn’t take any more time than doing it absent-mindedly, and the experience will leave you grateful and mindful for the next part of your day. Those steps all have to be completed anyway, so what would be the benefit in letting your attention wander to something else? There is none that I can think of, but it’s what would happen if you didn’t make a point of doing it all deliberately, by ritualizing it.
Most people will find this difficult at first. The mind will wander, and soon you are not really paying attention to the event itself. Perhaps you are preoccupied with your thoughts about what you are doing, rather than the sensation of doing them. There is a simple way to recover your wandering attention from your thoughts: just place your attention on the physical sensations involved in the action. Don’t think about them, just observe them. Sounds, feelings, textures.
Your attention is finite, and when you assign it to the sensations themselves, you minimize the amount available for thinking. Thought forms such as preconceptions, opinions, criticisms, fears and aversions all cease, and the moment can unfold without the usual threat of being rejected or disregarded by the mind.
Whenever one of these obnoxious thoughts arises, just remember it’s only the mind’s bad habit, and return your attention to the present physical sensations. Choose any sense to focus on, at first. I like to start by paying attention to how my skin feels and how my clothes feel on me, then I expand my attention to the moment’s visual spectacle, followed by the rich palettes of sounds and smells it offers me.
So whenever you find yourself in that 90+% of life where you’re between the moments you really want, it comes down to a choice between two habits:
1) The habit of appreciating the moment itself and its physical details, or
2) The habit of letting your mental chatter preoccupy you with hypothetical future moments that promise fulfillment.
Whenever you indulge one habit, you strengthen it and weaken the other. Most of us shift over to the second habit as we age and accrue responsibilities, and it costs us bigtime. It makes most of life forgettable and not particularly enjoyable. Ritual is one way to choose door number one. What is that 90% of your life worth to you?
Here is just a short list of routine tasks you can ritualize:
Purchasing something – Roam the aisles until you see the kind of artifact you came looking for. Pick one up, turn it over in your hands, notice its weight. How is the craftsmanship? Is it a fair price? When you are satisfied, bring it up to the front of the store, and wait in line. Forget the next errand you have to do; you’re here, so be here. What are other people purchasing? What is the clerk like? Hurried? Gracious? Experienced or green?
Sitting down to dinner with your family – Let your weight sink into your chair and take the load off your legs. Close your eyes for a second and notice the background noise. Take a breath and let go of any thoughts about the day leading up to this, or what you expect to do later. Eat slowly and pay special attention to the taste and feel of it. You’re alive and well, about to enjoy a meal with the people who matter most. How fortunate. It’s likely not the last one you’ll experience, but who knows? Only this one is guaranteed.
Making a phone call – The phone is a modern miracle, don’t ever forget it. It shoots your voice across cities, forests, mountains, and oceans to anyone willing to listen. What will your message be? Pick up the device and enter the proper code. It rings… and a faceless voice answers. A friend, a merchant whose wares have you interested, an administrator who can redirect your message, or maybe an unexpected stranger. Have a real exchange, rather than just barking your thoughts at them.
Start slow. Pick one thing to do today and devote to it your undivided attention. Defend its importance from your mind’s aimless wanderlust. It’s important because it’s what you’re doing right now, it’s your life. If you need inspiration, small children are great role models.
Photo by Pink Sherbet Photography