“A few times in my life I have had moments of absolute clarity. When for a few brief seconds the silence drowned out the noise and I could feel rather than think. When things seemed so sharp and the world seemed so fresh as though it had all just come into existence. I could never make these moments last. I tried to clng to them, but like everything else, they faded away in due time. I’ve lived my life for these moments. They pull me back to the present and it’s then that I realize everything is exactly the way it was meant to be.”
These final words from the last scene of the movie “A single man” still echo in my ears even now, weeks after first seeing it. Why do we all yearn for those moments of total bliss, yet usually get only a glimpse of them?
We might want to blame our mind in its endless and ever-repeated stream of thoughts. We can eat an apple, for example, while barely tasting it, not giving ourselves the joy of feeling its skin, of its fresh juice on our tongue, of its sweet smell and crunchy texture.
Our thoughts rise up within us for a reason but we often dwell on them more than needed. It has been estimated by various studies that more than 90% of our thoughts are repetitive and habitual. We can drown ourselves in obsessive thoughts of jealousy, for example, in order to perpetuate and legitimize an old mind-created story.
Thinking is busy and active, involving past and future. It is a high energy state which is exciting at times, but can also be exhausting. Thinking burns energy fast, and when done for a long time it throws us into a state of enervation. Sensing is the opposite; it conserves energy, has a low emotional charge and lets the body soften.
At any given time we have the option to switch between the modes, but in reality we rarely do. Most of us spend the bulk of the day in thinking mode, rather than becoming alive to the present moment and allowing ourselves to experience the world in a more sensuous way. A world with richer, deeper colors.
Since watching the movie “A Single Man”, I’ve been leisurely working on bringing more balance into my life and gradually fracturing the cycles of repetitive thinking.
Moving into awareness
We’re usually switching into a sensing mode whenever something important captures our attention; the scent of a freshly baked cake hits us with a passing breeze, a song begins to play on the radio, a friendly dog passes us, a dry leaf falls down from a tree.
We sense and immediately plunge into a thinking mode, labeling and judging what we’ve just experienced. Often we plunge too deep, only to find ourselves minutes later waking up from a stream of unconscious thoughts.
It’s only through awareness and mindful practice that we can consciously stay in the calming sensing mode for a longer period, and by doing so, shift into a more balanced, sensual life.
By activating the conscious part of our mind and observing what it does, we’re able to choose when and how much we want to think. We don’t have to do anything other than just noticing our thoughts as they arise and pass, while keeping our attention on the triggering sensation. Trying to block our thoughts can actually do the opposite; it can trigger more thoughts and physical tension throughout our body.
Staying in the moment
It is all well and good to relax and sense the world around us with eyes closed during a meditation session, but doing so during our daily life, such as waiting for a bus in a noisy street, can be more challenging. Our daily activities are more complex and composed of rapidly changing sub-activities with a large variety of sensory data such as sounds, sights, scents, and tastes.
One of the best ways to meet this challenge is to slow down and notice the sub-activities within each activity sequence. While making tea for example, you can notice how you open the cupboard, take out a cup, choose a tea bag, boil water, etc. We are then able to see the exact moment that each sub-activity stops and the next one starts. This is in fact a common practice with normal breathing meditation, where the meditator notices and pauses between each breath.
When you think about it, we rarely stop in our daily lives with today’s growing addiction to be chronically busy. It often feels as if we are on a continuous marathon run, especially at work. Email after email flood into our inbox with never ending tasks, demands, and short deadlines. We finish a project and there’s immediately a new one on the horizon.
The idea of “being present” is familiar to most of us, but it usually remains just an idea. We have to practice it repeatedly, and on a daily basis until it becomes natural and second nature to us. And so I did.
Experiments in being Sensual
For a few minutes a day I practiced awareness with some of my mundane daily activities and they slowly started to become increasingly enjoyable. From making tea to getting to the toilet I was able to relax quickly and give my thinking mind a brief vacation.
My favorite practices are usually conducted during the early morning hours, starting the day with a pleasantly warm shower. I turn the water on, close my eyes, and start focusing on pure sensations. The water hits me as an explosion of vitality and I feel my skin coming alive under the warm water. I stay connected with the present moment and let thoughts go by like clouds in a windy sky. I smell the fresh, clean scent of the soap as I wash my body clean, and listen to the sound of running water, feeling its inviting texture. “What a luxury to be able to enjoy hot water on demand” I sometimes think to myself as I turn the water off.
Another favorite morning practice of mine concerns food. “When eating, just eat” said the Buddha, and his words of wisdom often rise in my mind while having breakfast. By eating consciously and focusing on the food, rather than the laptop screen for example, we’re likely to be able to taste and smell food better. We’re also likely to eat less and healthier. It’s quite striking how much food we can eat without even being aware of it.
The next time you eat, try to eat slowly and taste every single bite. Feel the moment of contact, register the taste while chewing and don’t swallow until your food is completely broken down. Finally, make sure you breathe in and pause before you lift your fork again. If you also take smaller bites each time, you’ll find your stomach is more settled and ready for digestion.
It’s often useful to mentally say phrases such as “Breath deeply”, “Let go”, “Be sensual”. They can act like a trigger and help us to focus on one activity at a time. I find it most useful while focusing on my breath, saying words such as “let go” as I breath out. I feel the breath gradually soften and enjoy the gentle flow of the breath as it massages me from the inside. Breathing consciously is probably the fastest way to relax and become more sensual.
Most of us, including myself, do not want to escape to a meditative world in order to experience the beauty of life, but instead, prefer to experience it here and now, in the physical world. A secluded, celibate lifestyle is recommended by many Eastern spiritual traditions, but I personally feel that by taking this route we experience the world only partly.
We’ve been given a body and a world full of form that is to be explored and discovered, so why not use it to the fullest?
While I’m continually inspired by Eastern traditions, they tend to idealize the stillness part (withdrawing from the world) over awareness (understanding the world). I don’t want to practice like a Monk, sitting with my eyes closed for hours, reaching blissfulness only through meditation and spirituality. I tried it once during my Vipassana experience, and while it was worthwhile, I wouldn’t like to continue with it.
I want to make my body strong and flexible, able to dance, surf, kickbox, or climb. I want to passionately admire and celebrate my partner’s female body. I want to taste the fruity remnant of the wine, or to experience the intense sweetness of chocolate on the back of my mouth. And I want to do all of that while completely immersed in the experience of the moment and fully sensing the world around me.
I truly believe that short moments of relaxed awareness, repeated regularly throughout the day, are more valuable than relaxing deeply for a long time just once. It fits our fast paced world more efficiently and can keep us more balanced in the midst of life’s feverish pace. I prefer not to escape to stress-free surroundings for experiencing bliss but instead to practice it, experience it and live it in my normal day-to-day life.