Occasional backwaters

tales of the riverbank

Maybe I now get the mindfulness thing. When I’m doing something, thinking or sleeping reality slips away but during the times when I’m doing none of those things I look around and notice the real world: the hairs on my arm and the veins in my hands; the warmth of my palms on my thighs; the drip of the tap from the kitchen, the buzz of the fridge and the dust on my laptop. All this was there all the time but I was too preoccupied to notice.

I think all the talk of observing one’s breath is a red herring. That aims at some artificially pure state. Accidental and fleeting moments of lucidity are also possible and less contrived, less aimed for. I now think of those moments as quiet backwaters in time that I’m occasionally and accidentally deposited into. For a few moments I’m out of the current and time seems to slow down. Yet those moments never last and seconds later I’m swept up again by the current and I’m gone. And perhaps such moments shouldn’t last. They may be like yawning or sighing, the body’s way reacting to something that has been going on too long.

Some say the feeling arises when you are ‘here and now’ but I think that’s only part of the story; necessary but not sufficient as scientists like to say. For example, yesterday I was travelling on a Tokyo train and looking at the Japanese people sitting opposite me. I was genuinely interested in what the people were doing, saying and wearing, completely immersed in the here and now. Even so, there was no overwhelming sense of reality, no sense of the strangeness of being alive. I was just as lost to myself as I always am when I’m daydreaming or sleeping. It seems you need to be both here and now and conscious of yourself for the specific feeling of being alive to descend on you.

So should we do as devotees of mindfulness claim and extend these mildly pleasant moments to more of our waking lives? I suppose it depends on what you want from life. I personally think these feelings are like nostalgia, something best suited to old people sitting quietly in their afternoon armchairs. For younger people on the other hand life is, primarily, for living.

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