I’m sitting on a hilltop in Barcelona as I’m typing these words. The sun is shining through a partly clouded sky and the air is pleasantly cool as the crisp autumn is here. An older couple is sitting on a bench talking passionately while waving a cane, a young man is sleeping on a bench using his bag as a cushion and a middle-aged man is captivated by his smartphone. There’s a certain calmness here – one that you tend to find when elevating yourself from the hustle and bustle of life in the city.
Surrounded by pine and olive trees, I feel the gentle breeze on my skin as the birds are chirping with enthusiasm. In the distance I hear the sounds of cars and of construction workers hammering arrhythmically. The longer I sit, the more I seem to notice: someone left a cigarette butt on the bench, ants are crawling on the ground near my feet, flies are buzzing, there’s a chip of shiny green glass, a red string has been tied around one of the trees, a pale yellow butterfly enters my field of vision and the sun seems to shine brighter while the clouds are slowly dispersing.
It feels like time is standing still up here. It makes me think that many of us feel like life goes by much faster as we grow older in comparison to when we were kids.
When you look into the neuroscience behind it, what happens is that we experience time much slower when we are kids because everything is new to us. Our brain is constantly processing all of it. When we are older we have tried so much already, things have become routine and the brain doesn’t have any reason to use its energy to deeply capture what you already know. We tend to respond to the novelty of stimulation, which is why traveling, doing new things and taking new routes even in familiar places can help expand our sense of time and will stimulate our brain more.
Of course, there’s also a functional side to this. As we go about the world our brain filters out a vast amount of information since we can’t dwell on each sensory, especially in our stimuli over-saturated urban lives. But there’s a way we can actively practice using our attention to experience more of life in most situations.
I invite you to imagine two different scenarios:
You pour yourself a cup of coffee while glancing at a text message on your phone. You go and sit down while reading the text making sure you don’t spill the coffee. You take a sip of your coffee as you open the browser window and type in your favorite social media platform and you start scrolling through the newsfeed. You click on all the links that catch your curiosity, you like your friends’ photos and hum along to the song playing from your playlist while you occasionally drink your coffee. You suddenly remember that you need to reply to an email and open another browser window and start typing. At some point you reach towards the coffee cup, placing it to your lips only to find out there’s no more coffee left. You hardly remember actually drinking it.
You pour coffee into your cup. You notice how the steam disperses in the air as the cup fills. You feel the heat in your hand and you savor the smell of freshly brewed coffee. Your mouth starts to salivate a bit more from anticipating the taste. You look out the window and notice that it’s windy and rainy outside. You walk towards the table and sit down, noticing the trumpet solo from the song playing. You look at the coffee in the cup and notice how the light from the lamp reflects on the surface. You lift the cup and place it to your lips, noticing the sensation of the soft ceramic rim just as you start tilting the cup. The warm coffee fills your mouth with its strong round taste and the liquid sensation encapsulates your tongue. You feel the warmth of the coffee in your throat and as it travels down your chest and all the way to the belly, creating heat from the inside. You keep savoring each sip of coffee until it’s gone and all that’s left is a bit of coffee dregs at the bottom of the blue ceramic cup.
Which scenario left you feeling like you had a rich sensory experience? That probably sounds like a leading question and I did intend the second scenario to be the one you pick. In Buddhism there’s a term, Shoshin, which means “beginner’s mind.” It refers to being just as open as you are when you’re a beginner at something – when you don’t have preconceived ideas nor expect to know everything already. It’s a way of approaching learning and a way of approaching life. We can use the notion of the beginner’s mind as adults when it seems like we’ve already tried most things and life can feel like one long routine. We can actively direct our awareness to what we are experiencing and we can open our senses to gain a richer, direct encounter with life.
When we overstimulate ourselves we can end up missing out on life because we’re not really experiencing any of it. By focusing and being present to what we’re eating, drinking or what’s happening, a much richer experience will open up. We will be able to really take it in. I would go as far as to say that life will begin to have seemingly magical effects leading to a sense of daily enchantment when you immerse yourself in the experiences you’re having. How rich and beautiful life is when we really engage with it and pay attention! Of course, I know that there are less pleasant things and activities that are part of life as well. I don’t pretend to say that life’s all sweet and rosy. However, there’s a depth and richness to experience that we so easily miss when we’re living on autopilot, multitasking and just plainly not really paying much attention.
The reason why we practice mindfulness is to actually experience our life as we live it. The greatest gift you can give yourself is learning to direct your awareness more fully to what you’re doing and experiencing as you go through life. I invite you to start right now…