Staying present in life as it is seems such a simple and direct path; yet it is remarkable how challenging it is to do. These last few weeks I have been practicing the art of doing one thing at a time, deliberately keeping myself from multi-tasking in ways that are so habitual that I don’t even see them happening. Some are obvious like talking on the phone and checking an email: it is clear that I am not really attending to either. But others are not as easy to catch: doing the laundry and watching TV, two activities that I have paired for decades, but also that keep me from attending to either one.
The art of focused attention in the day to day is how we give our lives to ourselves. My daily meditation practice is one place where I am still and quiet enough to bear witness to the other thoughts or body sensations that try to intrude. In the silent watching, I see the distractions coming or at least once I have taken flight on one of them, I see myself going and can catch a tendril of attention and slowly reel myself back to this moment.
One of the primary mindfulness instructions given in Buddhism is essential practice of focusing on the physical sensations and movements of the body. I am lucky to attend a Pilates class which demands slow and precise movement. It has been a useful training to paying attention to the sensations and movement in the day. Still, even with all the practice, many times I am amazed at the posture I am in, or the stiff legs I am sitting on, completely oblivious to the messages my body is sending.
I have tried to apply the practice of laser focused attention on the moment to cooking and eating, too. On the upside, I am burning a lot less food, but more often than not, I am mindless, eating faster than I can swallow or picking at whatever is in front of me so that when I sit down to eat the food I took an hour to prepare, I am no longer hungry. Something so small like paying attention to chewing is revelatory, as basic as it sounds. Instead, I distract myself from all physical sensations with some old New York Times article.
Abraham Maslow, one of the most important developmental thinkers of our time, once said, “The ability to be in the present moment is a major component of mental wellness.”
I would venture to say that it is the foundation of our mental wellness. Scattered diversions – pulls from yesterday or things that have yet to happen does little for my sense of self.
I am more mindful of my inability to pay attention since my recent run in with near tragedy. Buddhist teachings also say how profoundly intense life changing times impact our ability to stay present. In fact, it is in these intense moments when we can often learn the most about who we are. I am happy to be out of that intensity, but I really want to take the present moment with me.