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Mindfulness Means Letting Things Surprise You

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One of the hardest things about trying to be mindful is that it is often powerfully boring.

You’re trying to pay close and gentle attention to the ordinary experiences of life — sipping tea, opening a door, breathing in through your nose — and this is supposed to transform your life if you keep at it.

But it’s hard to pay this much attention to ordinary life stuff, because you already know what’s going to happen. You already know what it feels like to sip tea and walk down a sidewalk and pass through a door. It’s hard to give things more attention than they seem to need.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a long time, and it has transformed my life, and I still periodically run into this same problem. The rustle of leaves or the inner caress of the breath only seems to bear so much attention, so much looking and noticing, before you want to say, “Okay, I see it. What next?”

Seen it

Four days into a silent meditation retreat in Washington state this September, I described my latest encounter with this problem to the teacher. She said to forget about concentration or mindfulness, and certainly any aspiration to achieve anything with them before going home. “For the rest of the retreat,” she said, “Your only goal should be to enjoy yourself and appreciate what’s happening. Forget this idea of mindfulness.”

At first this sounded like a pragmatic compromise. Evidently I was too mentally clogged up to get any serious practice done in the few days I had left, but at least I could enjoy it as a vacation.

When I went for a walk after that, though, it all fell into place. Instead of trying to “mindfulness” the falling leaves and babbling brooks, I just looked at them with the intention of appreciating what they were like. The concentration and equanimity quickly returned, and the sense of straining to be mindful went away.

This is the famous “beginners mind” lesson. After overcomplicating the goal, as we humans inevitably do, you drop all the ideas and anxieties you’ve built up around the concept of “mindfulness,” and just observe the thing in question with the simple intention to see what it’s like. And we find we can do that.

May resist being mindfulnessed

To see what something is like, you just have to take a conscious interest in it. To appreciate a stream, for example, you only need to observe, maybe even admire, whatever qualities it happens to be showing you — its glassy little knots of water, its radiating coldness, the brown floaties slipping around its rocks, its relentless babbling. You let its most apparent qualities strike you, whatever they are.

However, as I said above, it can be hard to pay sustained attention to ordinary things — falling leaves, choruses of birds, cars accelerating away after turning — because you’ve seen these things so many times. You already know what’s going to happen if you continue observing. The leaf will hit the ground. The birds will keep chirping. The car will disappear around the corner and its engine noise will fade into the background. The brook will babble. None of this is new or exciting, so the mind defaults back to idle thinking or some other source of stimulation. The curse of adult knowledge inevitably destroys the kind of childhood wonder that would make mindfulness easy.

Wants to show you something

This is one of the major obstacles to practicing mindfulness with any regularity: you need to be interested in experience in order to observe it, but how do you sustain an interest in the mundane stuff of life, when it’s mundane by definition?

Coming Around the Corner

In You Are Here, I described a simple practice called “Coming Around the Corner.” It takes about five seconds. You do it when you’re walking around a thing that blocks your vision, such as a wall or building.

As you move around the corner, you focus just past the edge of the wall, and observe a little scene being revealed:

Sometimes there’s a human interaction going on: parents giving instructions to their kids, or teenagers trying to look casual and disaffected in front of each other, or strangers waiting for the bus together. Or maybe you discover a squirrel burying something, thinking he’s alone. Maybe there’s an argument going on. Or maybe it’s just a mailbox and an overgrown sidewalk. Once in a while, you round the corner to reveal somebody you know.

You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide to Living in the Present

The point is that it’s always a surprise. Even if you’re very familiar with this particular corner, and you think you already know what you’ll see, what’s revealed is never quite what you expect, and that trace of mystery is interesting enough to sustain real, mindful attention throughout the few seconds it takes to reveal it.

You thought you knew, but you didn’t

The Coming Around the Corner practice is a little gateway into non-boring mindfulness practice. Whenever you’re turning a corner, or passing through a door, you can always be mindful for three seconds or so while you watch the new scene unfold. It’s not boring and you can always do it. Great. Progress. You have a sustainable mindfulness practice.

Life is made of this and nothing else

Once you start observing and appreciating these tiny surprises, you might notice life is made of them. When you open the cupboard to put away a dish, the shape of little towers of plates and bowls, and the way the kitchen light floods in to reveal them, never looks quite like you expect. You can let this, or any other experience, surprise you with what it’s really like. The way your coat comfortably settles on your shoulders when you slip it on — it never feels quite like you might expect it to. The slight effort it takes to observe what an experience is really like, regardless of expectations — that is mindfulness.

Every single sensory experience — and your life consists of nothing else — can be allowed to surprise you in this way, and the little surprise alone is worth that slight effort. It makes virtually any moment at least as interesting as opening a fortune cookie, except that instead of a disappointing platitude, you get a little vignette of life unfolding. A perfect little work of art.

Small but worthwhile

It’s astonishing to realize you never know quite what work of art will be born from that building corner. As you look on, a brown wiener dog wearing a knit sweater trots out from the edge, followed by its leash and owner, then a lamp post partly styled like a roman column, next to a segment of sidewalk with an Idaho-shaped asphalt patch on one side. As long as you’re watching for the next little scene to be born before your eyes, you are mindful.

Interesting and Productive

Watching these scenes emerge is an inherently interesting activity to our curious human minds. You literally can’t know what you’re about to see, except at the lowest possible resolution — there will be a sidewalk, there will be street lighting, there might be people. But you don’t know what the actual spectacle of it, the experience of it, is going to be.

Not expected

(Even the “industrial-strength” mindfulness practice of serious, prolonged meditation relies on this same willingness to be surprised by the next thing. You follow the breath for minutes or hours by taking an interest in what this breath is actually like — how it wavers, how it squeezes the diaphragm at its peak, how it cools the nostrils, and how each of these experiences dies off and something else emerges from it.)

The surprise is almost always a minor one, but watching for it is certainly more delightful than another five seconds of pointless rumination.

It is also more productive. Each time you attend to a little surprise, rather than live yet another moment on autopilot, you build your skill and intuition for mindfulness, and you break up the momentum of reflexive and automatic living. To allow yourself to be surprised is to be mindful, and you can allow any moment to surprise you. It only takes a few seconds of attention, and you can do it as often as every few seconds.

Surprisingly surprising

You actually don’t know what the eggshell is going to sound like when it plops into the bin. You don’t know how it’s going to feel to pull your sock off, how the chair will sound when you sit in it, how the room will change complexion when you flip the light switch, or how the warm water will feel on your hands. Watch these tiny things happen and let them surprise you. There are fortune cookies everywhere.

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Photos by M. Bericchia, Intricate Explorer, A. Spratt, L. Bravo, V. N. Mathisen, S. Bindea, Fran, and A. Kehmeier

{ 26 Comments }

jorge logicghosa October 11, 2022 at 11:13 pm

If you bother to read the Dhammapada rather than modern buddhist spooj then you’ll notice mindfulness in Buddha’s terminology is remembrance of moral teaching and concepts to help you avoid sin. Its not this nonsense they teach now of like eating a strawberry and focusing 100% on what it tastes like. Quite the opposite also in the Suttas generally, Buddha teaching guarding the sense doors, i.e. not magnifying the senses but diminishing them. What they are teaching in modern buddhist spooj is to maximize the senses and become more worldly, not to minimize them and become more disconnected from the world as Buddha taught. So its a religion founded by someone OTHER than Buddha and it should be renamed to indicate this.

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Heiko October 12, 2022 at 3:36 am

Thanks for your insight. :) Just a friendly hint that this post does not mention Buddha or buddhist practices in any way.

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David Cain October 12, 2022 at 8:52 am

This may surprise you, but mindfulness existed long before the Buddha. It is a thing humans can do with their minds, and it has many applications. The Buddha made a groundbreaking contribution by showing people a particular application: that they can use mindfulness to recognize dukkha and how it arises from craving, and how to let go of craving. These are very useful ideas, but they are just ideas for people to make use of, not a belief system to identify with, despite how many people do that.

I don’t see how identifying yourself with a religion is a particularly useful thing to do, and it’s hard for me to believe the Buddha would think so either, but I won’t argue the point. If religious identitarianism is working for you, great. Many of us see problems in it. It doesn’t seem to make people very kind, for one thing.

EDIT: See my post below for a hopefully more helpful response

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Jessi October 12, 2022 at 3:26 pm

There’s irony in your approach to “teaching” buddhism.

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Jessi October 12, 2022 at 3:27 pm

@jorge logicghosa

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David Cain October 13, 2022 at 11:22 am

Here’s a better response than the one I posted yesterday. I realize I did not quite address your objection.

Some people take for granted that the English word “mindfulness,” in the context of contemplative practice, should only be used as a synonym for the Pali word sati. I don’t agree with this — that would be like saying the English word “suffering” can only refer to dukkha. Even when the word suffering is used in a dharma talk by a qualified dharma teacher, it is not always referring squarely to dukkha. It can also mean “great pain” and any of the other meanings English-speakers use it for, because it’s just a word.

Likewise, the word mindfulness is not only used as a one-for-one synonym of sati. It is a contemporary word that refers to a range of overlapping concepts, both inside and outside of contemplative practice. In my experience, it is only Westerners who strongly self-identify as Buddhists who are sticklers for that one-to-one synonymization of mindfulness and sati. Not sure if that’s you.

I should also clarify that the quote from the teacher is paraphrased, so don’t hold the wording against her, but that’s how I understood it. She is a senior teacher at IMS. Either way, her meaning was clear enough to me — the idea of mindfulness was getting in the way of my simply abiding in experience as it is.

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Rocky October 12, 2022 at 7:19 am

I was pleased to come around the corner and find your post this morning. I was also pleased to find that your post was on the subject of mindfulness. I have been doing this meditation/mindfulness thing for north of twenty years. It has been enormously helpful in almost every aspect of living my life, which I tend to view as a perfect little work of art…
Thanks David for the lovely brushstrokes you’ve added to my painting!

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David Cain October 12, 2022 at 8:54 am

Thanks Rocky. The similarity between looking at virtually any random scene in life and looking at art grows stronger the older I get. Seems like a good sign.

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Pam October 12, 2022 at 7:36 am

This is so helpful! I’m going to try it today.

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Brian October 12, 2022 at 9:12 am

Your post with the photo of the laundry basket reminded me of Jack Kornfield’s book After The Ecstasy The Laundry: How the heart grows wise on the spiritual path. Worth a look perhaps.

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David Cain October 12, 2022 at 9:41 am

Such a great title

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Tara October 12, 2022 at 9:30 am

I noticed this too, thinking the reason I found it hard to stay in the present moment is because with prolonged observation, the present moment is boring. I’m guessing that’s why Tibetan Buddhist meditation teacher Mingyur Rinpoche says to practice « short time, many times ». Being aware repeatedly rather than trying to maintain it over long periods of time is easier, especially for beginners.

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David Cain October 12, 2022 at 9:45 am

That’s what I’ve learned from Shinzen Young. Just paying indefinite attention to something uninteresting is virtually impossible, but we are all capable of paying rather close attention to almost anything for a few seconds, even without any training. Once we realize that, we can learn to renew this attention every few seconds, by recognizing the object again, and observing again for a few seconds, and so on.

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Gregg Romaine October 12, 2022 at 10:14 am

Wonderfully written! This came around the corner at such a perfect time for me. I started a mindfulness practice during the pandemic and just before a big transition in my life. The practice was great and so interesting. But now that I’ve settled into a much more routine lifestyle, I’ve found myself getting very bored with everything. Thank you for the beautiful reminder to continue practicing even during the mundane!

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Carol in Denver October 12, 2022 at 12:10 pm

I think life can call for a different approach to mindfulness in the presence of challenge such as storm damage, war or even the collapse of a sewer line, as I recently experienced. A profound feeling of dis-ease makes mindfulness challenging, yet mindfulness can be the tiny aperture through which we see a bit of peace and strength to continue.

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Joe in MN October 12, 2022 at 12:28 pm

What an excellent essay. It was last week when I had a bad disc herniation that I took the time to notice how blessed I am, of my mostly, otherwise, fantastic health. That then made me notice the incredible feeling of taking tiny small, but successful, steps. While I indeed felt a lot of pain, I more certainly felt every delightful muscle that enabled my motion. I decided the luxury of deep sleep, now missing, should only make me laugh with joy. Maybe sad that the pain/herniation created this glorious opportunity to observe the vary mundane becoming alive and joyous. Regardless, I truly appreciate your outstanding contribution to my day!

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David Cain October 12, 2022 at 3:39 pm

I really can’t think of a more worthwhile thing to learn than some way of finding genuine appreciation for the mundane. Because that’s the vast majority of what life is. If we rely on peak experiences, or discrete pleasures for our experiences of appreciation, then life is mostly just in the way, even when it isn’t a particularly difficult phase of life.

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Alan Richbourg October 12, 2022 at 3:03 pm

The idea of taking delight in seeing what’s around the corner reminds me very strongly of the character of Tom Bombadil in The Fellowship of the Ring by Tolkien. Tom took complete delight in the details of every moment, and had apparently been doing so for thousands of years. It’s an inspiring example really. One of the parts of the book that didn’t make it into the movies, sadly.

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David Cain October 12, 2022 at 3:40 pm

You know, I’ve never read the book. Tom Bombadil sounds like one of those literary friends I haven’t met yet :)

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Letty October 13, 2022 at 1:33 am

Surprisingly inspiring read before bed, thank you. :)

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Belinda Stephens October 13, 2022 at 4:08 pm

Hi David,
Thank you for the suggestion of the doorways and round the corner mindfulness. Walking to my car after work is going to be an adventure.

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Steve R Lippman October 14, 2022 at 1:00 pm

As I often comment, I love your practical advice and also your truly human acknowledgment that this stuff can feel boring, that it’s not always going to feel like a picture of the look on Gwenyth Paltrow’s face as she meditates in a sunbeam. I have one experiment I am going to try to merge together your “round the corner” mindfulness with the practice of opening a fortune cookie. I’m going to say “between the sheets” after whatever I see around the corner. Silly yes, but sadly, I think it will motivate me to do it. :)

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Steve October 14, 2022 at 1:03 pm

Ooops, my name autofilled. I didn’t mean to give a middle initial as if a comment on Raptitude was akin to signing a mortgage document. :)

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Lu November 11, 2022 at 5:41 pm

Thank you very much! I really see how your article can help me. Thank you for you professional opinion and style of writing.. thanks again!

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Nicus November 21, 2022 at 3:43 am

You seem to be implying that being mindful is a good thing. Maybe it’s not. Perhaps there is a reason we don’t fall naturally into this state.

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David Cain November 24, 2022 at 4:12 pm

Whether mindfulness is a good thing is an interesting question, and we could test that (by researching whether people’s lives get better or worse when they learn mindfulness skills, etc). It is also arguable that we don’t fall naturally into mindfulness states. As far as I know, every culture describes states of profound presence and integration, and also that these states can be cultivated and have benefits. Something being natural doesn’t mean it’s good, and vice-versa.

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