What do these two people have in common: a young man playing the cello, and a father eating with his daughter at a local restaurant? This may sound like the beginning of a joke, but it is no joke. Read on.
I recently had the remarkable experience of hearing a young man play the cello. That is actually a complete understatement. He didn’t just play the cello — he became one with the instrument, and with the music, in a way I have rarely witnessed. Yes, he had great skill, but his playing went far beyond skill. For fifteen minutes or so, he was so completely absorbed in playing this piece of music that every fiber of his being was attuned with the vibration coming from his instrument. His eyes were mostly closed, his body moved as if in a dance, and he played each note with such intense passion, as if each note were its own masterpiece. This is the power of being fully present.
So what about the more ordinary scene of the father eating at a local restaurant with his young daughter? Interestingly, while I observed this scene many years ago, the image is still so vivid in my mind.
This father was sitting at a table eating lunch with his young daughter, who looked to be about five years old. She was chatting away in a carefree manner, as 5-year-olds often do. He was leaning forward, looking intently at her with warm eyes, and responding to her as if every word she was saying was deeply important. He was completely attentive, and his body language showed that he was not just listening, but was also fully attuned to her emotions and expressions in a loving and open way.
This went on for the ten minutes or so that I observed. What struck me was how rare it is to see this depth of interaction between parent and small child. More commonly, parents are half-listening while their attention is elsewhere, or they are engaged for short bits of time, but then lose attention to focus on other things.
Even as adults speaking to other adults, how often are we fully attentive like this? In my experience, not often enough.
This father exemplified what it is like when we are truly and fully present with another human being. This kind of presence is hard to come by. Think about how easy it is for our minds to be distracted, pulled in multiple directions. We spend large amounts of time thinking about the past and future. We eat while we answer emails or watch TV; we text while we are talking with others, walking, or worse, driving; we walk outside while we run through our to-do list and miss the trees and sky; we multi-task masterfully, all the while missing out on the gifts that come with giving our whole-hearted attention and presence to one thing.
I recently heard Tara Brach share this statement: “How you live today is how you live your life.” I find this a wonderful invitation to begin paying attention to how we are living our days. If you are like me, and most human beings, much of the time your body is in one place, and your mind is somewhere else. This is part of our human condition. Yet with practice and awareness, we can train our minds to more often be right here with us in this moment — even if just for short periods of time.
Several mindfulness meditation teachers I have heard teach that mindfulness is experienced when our bodies and minds are in the same place at the same time. One way of practicing this and training the mind to be more present and aware is by bringing one’s awareness to each breath as it comes in and as it goes out. This sounds so simple, and perhaps even silly, but it is actually quite profound.
We don’t practice meditation to become “good” meditators, or to simply become “good” at focusing on the breath. Instead, this is a skill that we can take outside of formal meditation practice and into our lives. As we teach the mind to stay with the experience of breath, we are also learning to come back to the very moments of our lives when our minds wander off into our common mental distractions as we go through our day.
So, how do we show up for our lives?
Besides formal meditation practice to help us cultivate being present in this moment, we can practice informally, as we go through the activities of our day.
One important way we can do this is to create more conscious moments where we bring our full attention to what is happening right here and now.
Some people have a misconception of meditation as something that requires a mystical experience or a complete quieting of the mind that can feel unattainable. But in fact, meditation can be quite ordinary, and we can practice it while we go about our day-to-day activities. We can use the ordinary moments of our lives to bring our full attention to them, while we are brushing our teeth, walking to our car, eating a meal, talking with family members, or folding the laundry. As we bring our full attention to what we are experiencing (engaging as many of our five senses as possible and being present in our bodies for whatever we are experiencing), the task is to continue to redirect our attention back to what we are experiencing, each time the mind wanders away. As we become more present and aware of the ordinary, even seemingly mundane moments of our lives, we also wake up to the aliveness that each moment holds.
So here is a suggestion for today. Find just a few minutes when you can put 100% of your attention on something you are doing. It could be listening in a conversation, playing with your child or pet, eating your next meal, listening to a piece of music, or washing the dishes. When your mind wanders, which it will, bring it back, again and again, gently and without judgment. Notice what the experience is like. What do you experience by doing this that you might otherwise miss? What is it like to have your body and your mind in the same place at the same time?
Most of our moments may not be as profound an experience as those of the cello player’s. However, the more we can practice presence a few minutes at a time, the more opportunity we have, as the father at the restaurant did, to transform the ordinary moments of our lives into something extraordinary.