When I first saw that mindfulness, the practice of moment-to-moment awareness, can make your life suddenly snap to life, I was walking on a street in New Delhi on an ordinary morning, in the neighborhood near the railroad station where the travelers’ hotels are. I was 22, and I thought: I just figured it out.
I had come to India, as was not uncommon back in the mid-70s, from western Europe by overland bus in the company of hippies, mystics and other motley travelers. Weighing down my backpack was a load of books on Indian philosophy and Buddhism and the like. (The backpack is in the attic now, somewhere. One of the books is still on my shelf.)
So I had been reading and thinking, and this morning I was walking by some open-fronted stores when it hit me that this is the only moment we have. Each single right now is the one time in our lives that is true. The past and future, it suddenly seemed clear, are just creations of our minds; the only way to come wholly to life, to live completely, is to learn to live now.
Simple. True! And, I would find just as so many others have, so very very hard, elusive and somehow complicated to do.
From Delhi I found my way to a course in Buddhist meditation, taught by a Hindu in a Muslim retreat compound in the country's farthest-west desert. I kept an assigned vow of silence, together with French freaks and Jain monks and Brahmin teenagers, sent there by their parents to find some direction for their lives, until we realized one of the other meditators had been ripping us off. But still we sat, for hours each day in our stark cells, in a fly-ridden assembly hall, and elsewhere around the bare compound, and we listened to guidance by the teacher; and when we all left after 10 days, I was sure I had got it.
But I hadn’t. I still haven’t. Over the years I have meditated, often regularly — sometimes not for months, but always I come back to it. I’ve now got a shelfload of books on Buddhist meditation and mindfulness, and I've absorbed a lot of information and history — but do I actually live in the elusive present? Well ... I can recommend lots of great reading!
More and more people are interested in mindful practice these days — and the warm, short books by Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hahn, beginning with The Miracle of Mindfulness, are perfect places to start. For a deep clarity that reflects centuries of practice tradition, try The Heart of Buddhist Meditation by Nyanaponika Thera of Burma. And for a modern American approach that blends Buddhist practice with the insights of a psychotherapist, Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach is a fine book that, like these others, I read again and again.
But sometimes you come across something, just in a normal day as on that morning in New Delhi, that opens up a huge new insight — and this week, it happened for me again. I was reading “In Mindfulness, a Method to Sharpen Focus and Open Minds,” an excellent article that appeared last Friday in The New York Times.
It’s a clear introduction to this practice, to its basic techniques and its globally widening appeal. In the piece is a two-sentence quote that suddenly opened to me something that probably should have been clear all along. (That’s what you think, isn't it? After you see it.)
When you are meditating, your mind wanders. This is normal; it happens countless times, sometimes within the same sitting. As a typically achievement-oriented Westerner, I’ve seen each wandering as a lapse, and the bringing-back of my attention — usually to the breath, the simplest traditional focus of the practice the Buddha taught — as an acknowledgement of yet another, well, small failure. I think many, even most people who try to meditate have the same experience, over and over again. It leaves us feeing we’re bad at this. Often, after a while, we give up.
But here’s a very different idea. Times writer Alina Tugend quotes Janice Marturano, the founder of the Institute for Mindful Leadership — who recently, I learn, gave a much-discussed workshop on mindfulness in business at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland — saying this:
“Can I notice when the mind takes a hike and redirect it? That redirection is the exercise.”
And I thought, Whoa — so each time I need to bring myself back, I don’t have to see this as another letdown? I don’t have to sigh and think how bad I am at this?
If coming back to the moment is the practice, then the practice of mindfulness becomes something I can do at any moment.
And now I think, well of course. That’s what it is.
Simple, right? Yes. And to see it took me only 38 years.