There we were, my girlfriend and me, the quintessential college couple, enjoying a few minutes of privacy in my freshman dorm room. We were on the top bunk, my roommate’s six-foot tall inflatable Godzilla grinning at us from near the front door. It was, for her (the girlfriend, not Godzilla), a rare moment of relaxation with me at my place. You can’t get a 3.92 GPA hanging out in your 2.7 GPA boyfriend’s dorm room every night. Her head was resting on my right arm, and it was when I leaned over to ask her a question that it happened: I became aware of my hand.
Except I didn’t know it was my hand, or even a hand at all. Whatever it was just floated there, next to my girlfriend, a living, stubby entity. I stared and stared and stared, unable to recognize this thing with four lean appendages and a fifth squat one. As the bewilderment slowly turned to fear—I had to warn my girlfriend! Look out for that……. thing next to you!—I knew I had to act soon or this creature would devour us both, and not even Godzilla would be of much use.
It was right about then when my girlfriend moved, and I saw that it was just my hand, still attached to my arm. You can only imagine my relief when I felt the (apparent) numbness in my arm morph into an only-slightly-better tingling. My discombobulation was not lost on my girlfriend, apparently, because she wondered what the hell was wrong with me. We didn’t have enough time to answer that question, but I did explain to her the experience. Her eloquent response follows unedited, in its entirety.
Less really is more.
Utter weirdness aside, I think about that night often. Distance provides not only the opportunity for a faulty memory but also for greater clarity—and, yes, the potential for romanticism. But I don’t have a romantic vision of college. What I do romanticise are those unique moments that emerge from, often, the most humdrum of experiences. The clarity of that moment, its quiet beauty, reminds me of something I heard some years later at my parent’s church, a Catholic parish in Santa Rosa. The priest said something along the lines of “Always pay attention, because you never know when God is speaking to you.” He was remarkably prescient, because just then I heard God talking to me. “Pay attention.” Except, as a non-believer, I simply substituted “the universe” for “God.”
Nowadays we might say that “paying attention” is “mindfulness.” But there is a difference. A state of mindfulness is to be aware of every breath, each footstep and its sound, to mark the passing of the day by being in that moment and that moment alone. The past and future do not exist. There is only you and your environment. It is a pure moment-by-moment existence.
The limitation to that, however, is that mindfulness does not allow for reflection, does not seem to allow for the sheer joy that can come with the unexpected. The converse is also true, of course—that the sudden pain of a moment is too much to bear, and all you want to do is forget it, in which case mindfulness can be a blessing. Mindfulness would seem to allow us to recognise a moment, but not necessarily to place it within its personal context for us, or to do anything other than moving to the next moment. Long term, how do we learn from our multifarious experiences? If we are to be mindful day-by-day, when can we reflect?
Such purity does not exist, nor can it exist. No Zen master would be able to live a perfect life of mindfulness, nor would they try. Rather, the appeal of mindfulness is the appeal of a mind at peace, or at least one not at odds with the universe. It is not, as I said, looking forward or back, but simply looking. And looking is not the same thing as paying attention. It calls to mind the old (but useful) saw: “You listen to me, but you do not hear me.” Paying attention is a better way to see, rather than simply being aware you are seeing.
Peter Matthiessen, in his unclassifiable masterpiece The Snow Leopard, seemed to suggest there was no difference between mindfulness and paying attention.
What is exhilarating is to extend this acute awareness into ordinary moments, in the moment-by-moment experiencing of the lammergeier and the wolf, which, finding themselves at the center of things, have no need for any secret of true being. In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us…the present moment. The purpose of meditation practice is not enlightenment, it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life.
Published in 1978, The Snow Leopard is nothing if not an extraordinary time. It tells the story of Matthiessen, whose wife had just died of cancer, hiking the Himalayas in the fall of 1973 with naturalist George Schiller. Schiller was out to study the elusive snow leopard, and Matthiessen, though his end goal was to see the lama at the ancient shine Shey Gompa, was really searching for something even more elusive: the meaning of life. The book’s power lies in not what is being said and done—though what is said is magnificent, and said exceptionally well—but what is not being said, what is not being done. After two months there they never encounter a snow leopard, but as Matthiessen says, “Isn’t that wonderful?” The book is spiritual, it is emotional, it is poetic. On and on and I can go, but I can say nothing better about it than if a book is truly capable of “changing your life,” then The Snow Leopard is one of those books.
All this talk about the ordinary vs. the extraordinary, however, falls flat. At the core of the story is a person living not an ordinary life but an extraordinary one—Matthiessen was, at various times, a CIA agent, a travel writer, a fiction writer, a budding Zen master. He had travelled all over the world before he went to Tibet. He had four children. He took LSD, lived to tell of it, and regrets that the drug was illegal. And he was a brilliant, beautiful writer. He was the very definition of “extraordinary” and his life followed suit. Most of us do not lead extraordinary lives, however, so perhaps what Matthiessen is suggesting—that we “bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary lives”—can be seen as something of a tonic to the world.
So it’s not so much living in the moment as it is trying to identify those every day moments—or perhaps a moment that can occur in any given day—that animate and enrich our lives in mysterious and not-so-mysterious ways. Or it is to pay attention to how you’re feeling in a particular moment, and, if that moment is worth holding onto, if it is intoxicating or blissful or powerful in other ways, it is to stop and tell yourself this won’t last, this can’t last, and to ride it as long as possible.
There are literally hundreds of books and Web sites that can instruct you how to celebrate the ordinary. That is not my point. Taking a walk in your neighbourhood and smelling the roses and all those other sanguinary tidbits is one thing. But those moments are forgotten as soon as they occur. It is one thing to notice a flower, but it is another to bank that moment as something to turn to when only the ugliness of the world seems the only thing visible. I have noticed myself turning to those moments, those moments that, if I may edit The Counting Crows’ song “A Long December,” “I remembered to hold onto as they passed.”
At the same time I couldn’t help wondering why I didn’t hold on to more of those moments. They do occur, even in the bleakest times, and their overall power is to take us out of our life, however briefly, and transport us to a better place. Though there is the risk of nostalgia, it’s not the same as living in the past or idealising that past or any past. It’s more than simply remembering how it felt to be lost in a moment. It’s a reminder to pay attention.
But pay attention to see, not to notice. Be in the moment, yes, but go further. Pay attention to those moments you sense might have some potential in them. Look around. See anything? These moments are rare, they are fleeting. Moments that call us not to forget but to remember, to reflect. To wonder at the inexplicable, odd beauty of a world where you suddenly become aware of your hand.