Learning to Embrace the Present

How slowing down can open up the present moment

When I wake up, I brush my teeth because I don’t want them to rot. I eat because I’m hungry. I drink coffee because without it I’m a grumpy automaton. Each action checks off a box on my agenda or falls in the bottomless bucket of procrastination.

The whole day goes like this. Weeks, months, even years, can pass in this automatic state of “doing because…” or “avoid doing because…”. How often have I actually just done something for its own sake? How often have I put all my attention into whatever I’m doing and focused on the moment? Even enjoyed it with no ulterior motive? How often am I in a state of mindfulness?

“Mindfulness isn’t difficult, we just need to remember to do it.” -Sharon Salzberg

Even if you don’t do a lot of yoga or meditation or read self-help books and posts like this, you might know that mindfulness is key. Key to what, I can’t really define, but life seems a great deal better when I stop focussing so much on where I came from, where I should go, and whether the job I declined was the one I actually wanted. A life full of choices leads to a mind full of regrets.

While I know there’s no “correct” path to follow, I forget. I’m suddenly evaluating my options, comparing myself to my peers, and judging my lack of excellence in those areas I’ve come to believe are part of this thing called me.

For example, I delude myself into believing that I’m a writer. I look up at the prose of Hemingway and Joyce and Twain, and in the quiet hours of the night I whisper to myself: “if only I could be that good, then I would be happy.” In those moments, I forget that life happens now and that I’m actually happy.

Yet, I desire more. It’s the curse of the ego. I crave more so I can build a solid base that will last forever; a group of friends or a family or a job I can always return to.

Mindfulness is the cure to the whispers of the mind. Mindfulness lets you see past the machinations of that inner voice. How to become mindful, now that’s a topic worth considerable study.

And who has time for that? There are egotistical dreams to chase god damn it!

For those living in the fast lane, here’s a simple technique you can bring into your daily life. A technique that doesn’t require an hour every day in a position that makes your joints hurt. It’s not a shortcut to enlightenment, just a brief reminder.

Go Slow

Whatever you’re doing do it slightly slower than what is natural.

Or to put it more eloquently:

“Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future; live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

Why does this work?

When you do a novel task such as learning a new sport or movement or investigating a new aspect of nature you’ve never seen before, you need to put all your attention to the task at hand. If you do not, you won’t really learn anything.

However, as the challenges we face become more and more ingrained, our minds are free to wander and concoct all kinds of fanciful scenarios. Mind wandering isn’t bad, by itself, but as with walking it quickly becomes an automated mindless action. But unlike an automated behavioral action, it does not free up attention for other pursuits.

So instead of walking up the stairs two steps at a time like I usually do, I sometimes force myself to go slowly and fluently in a gliding motion. Instead of pouring coffee in my usual “all at once” style, I pour as if I was a world-renowned barista scrutinized by a thousand cameras.

The clue isn’t merely to do it slowly but also to make it look good. Make it look like you’re living in a slow-motion movie.

When I do things slowly, and with a modicum of grace, I have to pay the full extent of my attention to every movement of my body, every contraction of my muscles, every shift in balance. If I don’t, it’ll look like there’s something wrong with my cerebellum.

In other words, it’s impossible to be mindless when you do something slower than you usually do it. Slow-motion mindfulness is not the same as slow living though, nor does it require you to do everything as if underwater which would be too inefficient for modern society. No, a slow action here and there is all.

For me, I have a few habitual motions I do slowly. Ascending the stairs in my apartment building, pouring and drinking coffee, watering my plants, and the occasional touching of a material with an interesting texture.

Whenever I slow down I feel as if my perspective shrinks in from the past and future horizons to a pinprick centered on the here and now. Suddenly, everything is just as it should be. There is after all nothing wrong right now, as Eckhart Tolle says. When I return to my normal modus operandi a few seconds or minutes later, a fresh breeze has cleared out some of the clutter in my mind.

For me then, slow movement is not merely a mindfulness reminder, but also an excellent tool to break up obsessive thought patterns that lead nowhere.

Take-home message:

“I have lived with several Zen masters — all of them cats.” ―Eckhart Tolle

What do cats do most of the day? Nothing much, but whatever they do, they usually do it slowly. So intersperse your daily life with slow-motion mindfulness and feel that abrupt shift in focus towards the now.

As a bonus, for those concerned with how others perceive them, doing things slowly but fluently and controlled gives off a powerful and strong vibe, as if you know what you are doing and that the world is waiting for you to finish (depending on which action and at what speed).