I’ve been perched upon a stool in a San Diego beauty salon for more than 3 hours – my punishment for trusting a new hairdresser to change me from platinum to red. Bored beyond tears, I’m completely unable to focus on the book that’s in my lap. Instead I’m wondering, Is there time to defrost the salmon for dinner tonight? Should I splurge on that Marc Jacobs hobo or search for a knockoff online? When the assistant finally summons me to the shampoo station, I mutter, “Huh?” – I’ve been daydreaming about a vacation in Belize – and, forgetting that my legs are wrapped around the stool’s upper rung, I hit the faux cement floor with my shins, then knees, then elbows, the stool clattering to join me among the soggy clumps of shorn hair.
I wish I could say this sort of thing rarely happens to me, but the reality is that I’m the type who often finds herself standing in front of the microwave, holding the almond milk that is clearly meant for the fridge. I search frantically for the car keys that I just tucked into my back pocket two minutes before. More troubling are the stretches of hours – sometimes days – when I’m on autopilot, going from work to workout to dinner with friends, not quite tuning into conversations, looking at my phone a dozen times during a single Pilates class. My body is present and accounted for, but the feeling, thinking, observing parts of myself are vaguely… someplace else.
The antidote is mindfulness, a concept with roots both in Buddhism and the “be here now” days of the ’60s. Mindfulness means paying attention to what’s happening right now without brooding over the past, fretting about the future, or making judgements about how you’d prefer the moment to unfold. When you’re mindful, you’re awake, alert, fully alive. You’re conscious that there will never be another “moment like this.”
I want in. I want to stop being the person who had to take a tennis lesson in hiking boots because she packed two left sneakers instead of a matching pair. I want to become a person who tastes what there is to be tasted, sees what there is to be seen, felt, understood, and experienced.
Here’s a confession: The book I was reading when I fell off the stool was about mindfulness and I hate to admit that. The best way to tame the mind is through meditation. For about 10-40 minutes a day, you sit in “a dignified position” becoming aware of your breath moving in and out of your body, and observing – without analyzing, finding fault with, or trying to suppress – the thoughts, sensations, and emotions that arise.
I plop down two pillows on the floor by the foot of my bed, pop in a guided meditation CD, and prepare to go out of my mind with boredom. As I listen to the CD suggest that I “switch… to… a… mode… of… simply… being,” all that I’m aware of is a deep desire to sleep. But somehow around the halfway point, something begins to shift. My left nostril itches. I resist the impulse to scratch and simply observe the itch. My left nostril still itches. If anything, it’s even itchier. Yet I no longer feel the urge to scratch. Somehow I can perceive my itch without disinterest. Nothing needs to be done. And then, a few minutes later, I become aware that the itch is no longer there. Like anxiety attacks or cravings for Toblerone bars, itches come and go. We can wait them out. For that moment, I feel like a warrior.
When you’re walking through the open-air markets of Paris or Berlin, you feel more alive. That’s because you’re noticing new smells, sights, tastes. But in our rushed, over-scheduled, stretched-too-thin lives, we become so trapped by routines that our perceptions get frozen. We turn into efficient but robotic creatures of habit. By becoming interested in whatever we’re doing, we also become more interesting. I now try to refrain from condemning myself as an irredeemable klutz when I struggle to isolate my left butt cheek during pelvic tilts. When you’re doing something mindfully and focusing on the process rather than the outcome, you’ll see your performance as precompetence rather than incompetence.
I’m staring at a raisin. I observe its wrinkles, the changes in color from raisin valleys to raisin flatlands. I lift the raisin to my nose and sniff. It smells… raisiny. I place the raisin in my mouth and feel its grooves against my tongue. I chew, feeling the raisin pulp bursting out of its skin. I swallow. Fun? Not really. In fact, a mindfulness expert who once spent seven minutes consuming a raisin admits, “it nearly drove me insane.” But the point is to bring awareness to the activities we do so habitually that we barely notice them. The mundane things in life are so… well, mundane. But I try and I feel I’m on the right path. I’ve discovered that mindfulness isn’t as squishy as it sounds, that there’s a clear line between doing something mindfully – or not. And that’s what mindfulness does. It makes you fall a little in love with yourself and your life. And that beats falling off a stool any day.