About a month ago I wrote a post called ‘What’s so great about the present moment?’ In it I questioned the constant and often unthinking refrain that we should live in the present moment. I did an experiment and sat in my chair for two minutes, just looking at the objects on my desk.
Nope. Didn’t feel anything. Nothing transcendent happened. There was no feeling of having no self, no feeling that the barrier between me and the world had fallen, no feeling that I had been unburdened of a heavy weight. Instead there was just nothing. Business as usual.
But yesterday I watched a video on Youtube of Jon Kabat-Zinn talking about Mindfulness meditation and I enjoyed the talk. He is an advocate for the practice of Mindfulness as a way of reducing stress. Mindfulness is really just about noticing things that are happening now rather than getting lost in your thoughts and drifting off to La-La Land.
His basic points were these. We spend most of our time thinking, reading, working, answering emails, rushing somewhere and basically being busy. There is nothing wrong with this and we probably have to live like this in the modern world, what with our jobs, families, friends and interests.
Yet if you just stop for a second and listen to the sounds of the room, become aware of the feel of your feet on the floor, or notice any other thing that is happening now, life feels different. It isn’t that stopping, looking and listening is so wonderful. After all, all you are doing is noticing whatever is around you, which generally isn’t anything marvelous. It just feels mildly calming.
His opinion was that things will never get any better than those moments spent listening to the sounds of the room and noticing the feel of your feet on the floor. In those moments you aren’t trying to get somewhere else. You just stop and become aware of whatever sensations you are feeling and this is very mildly pleasant. Not transcendent, just quite nice. It may simply be on the absence of busyness and stress that you feel at such moments.
On the other hand, the constant activities of working, reading, answering emails and above all thinking are very mildly stressful. To be always lost in the contents of your own head might not be the best way to spend your time.
So there is nothing to aim for in the kind of resting state Kabat-Zinn advocates, no higher state of consciousness you have to try to achieve. Just by stopping and noticing the hum of my laptop slightly vibrating under my hands is calming in a way that actually writing my blog isn’t. Just taking in your surroundings for a moment is pleasant. And this is what I liked about the talk Jon Kabat-Zinn gave. It promised very little.
My guess is that we probably used to think less than we do now. Memory and planning were very useful tools for humans to acquire and it was probably these abilities that gave us an advantage over other species on this planet, as well as over people who were rubbish at remembering and planning.
Even so, just because something is useful doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its drawbacks, nor that you have to use this useful tool all the time. Once you have used a hammer it’s best to put it down rather than carrying it around with you wherever you go.
My interest in all this has something to do with a passage I read recently by William Hazlitt, the 18th century British writer. He wrote the following:
So have I loitered my life away, reading books, looking at pictures, going to plays, hearing, thinking, writing on what pleased me best. I have wanted only one thing to make me happy; but wanting that, have wanted everything!
The thing that Hazlitt wanted was requited love. I too loiter my time away with the same kind of pastimes but what I am missing, as well as requited love, is the feeling of really being alive. I like my life but I sometimes wonder if it doesn’t lack a feeling of solidity and depth. All the books and the pictures, all the online articles and all the thinking sometimes just feel a little ‘thin’. Life often feels less like living and more like killing time before I die. So I wonder if stopping for a while and doing nothing in the way that Jon Kabat-Zinn suggests might make the sheer physicality of life apparent.
Anyway, a good image I conjure up in my mind for a moment of this kind of living is not some Buddhist monk but a 1950s British Housewife who has just carried her shopping back from the local co-op. She kicks off her shoes, makes a cup of tea and just sits in an armchair for a while, thinking of nothing. She notices the quiet of the house or the sounds that come floating in from outside: a distant neighbour’s dog barking, the clink of milk bottles as the milkman does his daily delivery. Peace and quiet and rest with a mind that is wide awake.
Then she gets up and cleans the kitchen floor and its back on the chain gang.