A Practical Guide To Creating a Mindful Life In A Distracted World
by Achim Nowak
Table of Contents
The Moment Begins ……………………………………………………………..
Key #1: Awaken the Senses ……………………………………………………………..
Key #2: Crave Meaning ……………………………………………………………..
Key #3: Wave-ride Energy ……………………………………………………………..
Key #4: Make Time Stand Still ……………………………………………………………..
The Moment Continues ………………………………………………………………
Opening Chapter: The Moment Begins
Helen at the Airport
I walked into the Hudson News Booksellers at LAX’s Terminal 3 and picked up a New York Times. As I stood in front of the cashier and poked through my wallet to pull out some dollar bills, I sensed a man standing next to me. I looked up. There he was. I felt a jolt in my chest as I looked at him. The man gulped and held my gaze. I saw a tenderness in his eyes. There was a simmering silence between us.
As I handed the dollar bills to the cashier, the man asked me: “Would you like to grab a cup of coffee?” I felt another jolt. And just then a voice on the loudspeaker announced that my flight was boarding. I grabbed my change and looked at him and said: “That’s my flight.” His face seemed to suddenly fall. I saw a flash of sadness in his eyes.
I shoved the wallet into my purse and hurried down the hall to my gate. When the airline attendant took my ticket I looked at her and blurted out: “I was in the bookstore just now and I met the most wonderful man.” “Well, you have to go back and find him!” she said. She was firm in her command.
So I ran back to the bookstore.
The man was gone.
This is my friend Helen Miller’s story. Helen relays it to me as we sit around her cozy Santa Monica kitchen table, nibbling on feta-stuffed olives and crackers and heaps of hummus.
Helen had a moment at LAX.
It had a clear beginning, middle, and end. It stood out from the moments before. It would inform the moments that were about to come.
I hear the wistfulness in Helen’s voice as she speaks. Yes, Helen had a moment. It was a moment that slipped away.
What if it had not?
What about all of the other moments in our lives that simply get away because we are distracted, because life is moving too fast? What if there were a way of knowing a moment more fully, more deeply, more quickly as it unfolds? How might this alter the experience of our lives?
Every second of every day, moments are waiting to be born.
We either notice or we don’t.
Consider the German term ein Augenblick. It is a well-known expression with multiple meanings. The literal one goes something like this: within the blink of an eye. And there is the colloquial meaning, used on a near daily basis by most Germans: Wait a moment, I’ll be right there.
The German language also has a more literal match for the English word “moment,” ein Moment. But the allusions of ein Augenblick are the ones that cut to the core.
Within the blink of an eye a moment can happen.
Within the blink of an eye we may notice.
Within the blink of an eye the world can change.
Within the blink of an eye it can all slip away.
Helen knows. You and I know. That is the beauty and the terror of a moment.
We might as well belong to the tribe that yearns to catch the blink, don’t you think?
“Just live in the moment.”
We have all thought the thought. Most of us have uttered the words. It’s a wonderfully appealing notion, isn’t it? As enticing as it sounds in theory, the idea of living in the moment is also fast becoming the ultimate mindfulness cliché.
What the heck does it actually mean?
What happens in a moment? How do we experience a moment? What is it that we notice when we notice? These are some of the questions we will have a little bit of fun with in this book.
This is not a book about simply being more spontaneous or “going with the flow.”
It is more.
It is not about learning how to better meditate.
It is more.
It is not about the Buddhist notion of having a beginner’s mind.
It is more.
The Moment is fueled by a few simple beliefs: As we more richly know our moments, we invoke a more richly lived life. A richly lived life is a more momentous life. And a more momentous life is an inherently good and desirable thing.
In the pages that follow, we will go for a walk on the wild side with our conjoined twins, memory and meaning. The more keenly we remember and the more courageously we make meaning, the more memorable our life becomes. “The least of things with a meaning,” Carl Jung asserts, “is worth more in life than the greatest of things without it.” And memory, like it or not, is always in the mix. There is no new moment without the echo of other moments. There is no blank slate. Neutral doesn’t exist.
Four keys will open the doors to our momentous life. These keys are simple. That is their beauty. They are common sense. They’re also great fun.
As we explore the four keys together, let go of any notion that this is hard work. While you flip through the pages of this book, do not think of it as learning something new. No, you are remembering something that you have known all along. The Moment is a return to a state of childlike delight, when all of our moments were brazenly lived.
It is that simple. It is that rich.
Gurdjieff Made Me Do It
When I was 25, I was determined to fully live every single moment. I had discovered the writings of George Gurdjieff, and I was instantly smitten. Gurdjieff is an early 20th-century mystic from the Caucasus who sought to understand the nature of reality and the hidden meaning of life. He believed that most of us spend our life in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep.” Gurdjieff also suggested that through a series of rigorous exercises, we could reach a higher state of consciousness.
I surely did not wish to be a sleepwalker. I wanted higher consciousness. So I created my own little Gurdjieff experiment.
I lived in a studio apartment at 1512 Corcoran Street, in the Dupont Circle area of Washington DC. It was a fourth-floor walk-up that required me to navigate several flights of elaborate stairs. This was my daily Gurdjieff assignment: Instead of hustling up the stairs to my apartment as efficiently as possible, I decided to slow down and fully experience the mundane.
I was going to explore the reality of walking up to my apartment.
I took each step of the stairs with great deliberation, one at a time. Tentatively. Slowly.
I saw the silver metal strips that capped the edges of each step.
I surveyed the ziggy-zaggy cracks and the small and not-so-small crevices in the dark plastered wall that lined one side of the stairs.
I gazed at every rod in the black metal railing that flanked the other side, paint bruised and chipped.
I noticed the dust that had coalesced into tiny mounds of dirt at the far edges of each step.
I traced the murky light of the fluorescent overheads as they threw shadows on the walls.
It took me up to 45 minutes to reach my apartment. I did this for 10 days.
It was a very slow climb.
I saw the details. I noticed. I noticed some more. And it signified nothing.
The climb up the stairs was just the climb up the stairs.
It did not lead me to a higher state of consciousness. The ascent had no desire to be memorable. Stair-climbing at 1512 Corcoran Street simply was not a momentous act. I gave stair-climbing the royal treatment, and I discovered, floor by floor, that not every moment wants to be a royal moment. Whew. What a relief!
This was my first Gurdjieff experiment. And my last.
Marge in Havana
It is 6:40 a.m. in Havana, and I slide into a rickety rusty-white chair next to my friend Marge Schiller.
Marge is gazing at the sea. Behind us, the lawns of the Hotel Nacional are lulled into a deep morning slumber. From the terrace at the base of the slope, we survey the curve of the Malecon promenade and the El Morro fortress in the distance. The Gulf of Mexico glitters with a steely grey sheen.
“I’m into the experience of experiencing,” Marge declares, a satisfied grin on her face. “Listen to the symphony of sounds.” Marge cocks her head heavenward as she speaks. Her silvery white 76-year-old pixie hair thrusts away from her head, as if it were listening too.
“Seven different kinds of birds,” Marge recounts. “There is the sound of a car driving by. Then silence. Music blasting from another car. A flag flapping in the wind.”
She pauses. Another silence, and I slink into the seductions of this morning. A whiff of mariposa jasmine ascends my nostrils. I sense the outline of Marge’s body next to mine, pressing into the back of her chair, sitting still. I have walked into her moment. It is ours now.
Marge is a renowned thinker in the world of “appreciative inquiry,” a conversational framework that organizations use to create better futures. A key tenet of appreciative inquiry is that as we look at any situation, we might as well begin by appreciating that which is strong, that which is good, that which already works. Notice that which we may have taken for granted. Notice what has always been there, right in front of our eyes.
“When I am fully present,” Marge explains, “I absorb experience with every sense. That is the only way I can truly understand the world.”
Yes, with absolutely every sense. That’s where the appreciation of a moment begins, doesn’t it? I had called on my senses during the Gurdjieff experiment of my youth. It didn’t seem to matter. This morning, in a special place, with a cherished friend, it does.
Havana at 6:40 a.m. It starts in a moment such as this.
There Is No First Time
Do you have places you return to again and again?
The sort of places that fill your heart with anticipatory joy, even before you are there? Because you know you’ll get to canoe across the cool waters of Blue Mountain Lake again. Get to sneak a bite of your favorite fried green tomatoes at Sally Jean’s Cafe, get to screech with silly abandon on the Astro Orbiter, watch the sun set over Shelter Island with a melon mojito in hand.
These are the places where we go to re-create moments.
Chances are, the very first time you set foot in one of your places, you may have had an inkling, a feeling that you have been here before.
Here is a place of mine. It is just before 7:00 a.m. I slip out of my orange MINI Cooper convertible at the Greene Street parking lot in Hollywood Beach, Florida. Saunter up a narrow wooden walkway that cuts through a mangrove thicket. The mangrove trees rise high alongside the planks and then loop in tightly wrung spirals above the path. They create the illusion of a shaded tunnel.
As I walk into this tunnel, I feel like I am entering a magic passageway. It leads me to a secret world. Just where the planks reach a plateau and the path flattens, the secret world reveals itself. A set of handrailed stairs descends to a deserted beach. Royal palms rise majestically on either side. And in front of me a view of the Atlantic bursts open wide, as if I could see to the ends of the world.
The first time I amble up the wood planks to Greene Street Beach, I am instantly transported. These planks are the very same planks I walked in my summers on Fire Island, a few hours outside of Manhattan. The weather-beaten wood. The rusted nails that no longer pin anything down. The bounce in the planks as my flip-flops press in. The light that pulls me to the ocean. The skip in my heart as I anticipate the sea.
These are my memory triggers. My joy magnifiers. My sensory umbilical cord to the magical summers of my Fire Island past.
“Experiences are encoded by brain networks whose connections have already been shaped by previous encounters with the world,” Harvard psychologist Daniel Schacter writes in Searching for Memory. “This preexisting knowledge powerfully influences how we encode and store new memories.”
The first time I swing into Independence Drive in Provo, on the Turks and Caicos Islands, I notice the low stone walls that line this road.
“It reminds me of Mallorca,” I say to my friend Richard Sankar, who is driving us.
That afternoon, Richard and I stroll past the same stone wall and hang a left at the sign for property BE3. A pebbled path cuts through a thicket of brush toward the beach.
There are no wooden planks here, no fancy railings, no royal palms. But I turn to Richard and say: “It reminds me of Greene Street Beach.”
It is my first time in Turks and Caicos.
There is no first time in Turks and Caicos. There is no first time on Greene Street Beach. There never is.
The shaded tunnel, the magic passageway, the opening to a secret world: That is the little story I tell myself as I saunter up the Greene Street planks. Or to be precise, it is the story that presents itself to me. It supercharges my experience of the experience. It is my very own Greene Street Beach myth.
After all, it’s just a walk up a set of wooden planks.
There is never just a walk up a set of planks.
And there is no first time. There never is.
The Thrill of Slipping through the Gate
Form is no different from emptiness.
Emptiness is no different from form.
Form is precisely emptiness.
Emptiness is precisely form.
These words are found in the beginning of the Heart Sutra, one of the best-known Buddhist scriptures of all times.
In Sanskrit, the Heart Sutra is called the Prajna paramota sutra. Prajna means “real wisdom.” Pra means “before or prior to” in Sanskrit, and jna means “knowledge or knowing.” So prajna describes an intuitive way of knowing. A wisdom that has nothing to do with intellectual knowledge.
Cognitive psychologists explain how we make meaning by rigorously examining any new experience. We compare the new experience to our current world view, assimilate the experience if it fits, and consider a different perspective if it doesn’t. Meaning making is viewed as a deliberate cognitive process.
And it always happens after the fact.
Prajna wisdom, however, reveals itself as a moment unfolds. It is instant, and it just as instantly illumines our experience of a moment.
Helen’s encounter at LAX, a moment graced with prajna.
When I think of my earliest memories of prajna, I flash back to a moment from my childhood. It stands out because it is laced with the joys of instant wisdom. It is connected to an impossibly beautiful place in Turkey: Tarabya.
And because it is a memory from a long time ago, this thought also crosses my mind:
I could be making this all up. It could be that it never happened this way at all. It could be that it’s simply a beautiful story.
It could be. But I don’t think so.
Between the ages of 10 and 14, I lived in Ankara where my dad was assigned to the German embassy. In summer, folks from the embassy migrated to an old Victorian estate in a village right on the Bosporus strait, halfway between Istanbul and the Black Sea.
The estate, 15 acres deep, sprawled into a U-shaped mountain ledge that wrapped itself around a level plain. It housed a smattering of gilded white mansions and featured a central promenade lined with tennis courts and fountains and a faded swimming pool. Walking paths threaded into the mountain and offered ravishing vistas of the Bosporus and Asia beyond. Everything in this estate spoke of a grandeur that was no more, white paint peeling on doors and verandas, weeds that had cracked the clay tennis courts. The front of the property lined a narrow winding road that ran alongside the Bosporus. A gargantuan black wrought-iron fence shielded the estate from this road and the world.
Ten years after my last visit to Tarabya, I saw a movie by the great Italian film director Vittorio de Sica, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. It told the story of a wealthy Jewish Italian family who lived in an opulent villa, circa late 1930s, shielded from the rest of the world by a magnificent walled-in garden. I watched it spellbound by flashes of memory, thinking of Tarabya. And so the memory loops go.
Tarabya was my garden.
To enter the estate from the street I would slip through a crack in the iron gate. When a car pulled up, the attendant would swing open both wings of the gate. The remainder of the time, he just opened a little crack. Outside of the fence, a steady stream of cars cruised down the Bosporus road. Fishermen sat for hours on a mini pier. Families lounged on beach chairs and listened to transistor radios. Vendors with carts sold melons and chips and cola. It bustled.
My slip through the crack took mere seconds. It filled me with an extravagant joy every time. It was my slip from a public world into a private one. From the anyone-can-travel-here road into a privileged realm. From a wide-open space into a sheltered one. From a loud world into silence.
Just some of the levels of meaning in that little slip. I might not have named them quite that way when I was 11 and 12. But it was oh so clear to me I wasn’t merely going from one location to another. I knew.
The thrill of the moment transcended the performance of the act.
Life connoisseurs cultivate the art of such rapid meaning making. They crave their moments of instant wisdom. The quick illumination, the unexpected aha. The thrill of knowing. The slip through the gates of meaning.
Let us be life connoisseurs, shall we!
The Empty Space
A few decades ago, when I did nothing but direct theater plays, Peter Brook was my hero of heroes. I no longer direct. He still is my hero—Peter Brook, one of the great visionary theater directors of the 20th century. In 1985 I attended an allnight performance of Brook’s legendary staging of the Mahabharata at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was 9 hours long. A troupe of actors from every part of the world, together on a crumbling old stage. A timeless epic tale, a performance reimagined, brimming with life.
To create great theater, Brook said in his book The Empty Space, we do not need marvelous sets or stunning costumes or brilliant lighting. Those are the artifacts of “dead theater.” No, to create great theater, all we need is actors and an empty space.
In the performance of our everyday lives, you and I are the actors. Every moment is the empty space.
Nothing happens in this space. Everything does. It is that simple.
Marina Abramović is arguably the most influential performance artist in the world today. Fans like Lady Gaga prance nude through the woods in a promotional video for Abramović’s future institute in upstate New York. Jay Z’s music video Picasso Baby: A Performance Art Film was inspired by his encounter with Abramović during her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
Detractors have called her a fame whore. Love her or hate here, fame has come to Ms. Abramović for a reason. She is ferociously reimagining what happens in the empty space.
Abramović’s performance at the Museum of Modern Art was named The Artist Is Present. During the 10-week run of the show, Abramović sat motionless in a chair, 6 days a week, 7 hours a day, looking straight at whoever sat opposite her, waiting for moments to happen.
As I jot down these words, her new show 512 Hours just opened at the Serpentine Gallery in London. The chair, Ms. Abramović has since decided, is too much of an artifact. The gallery is entirely empty but for a row of lockers where visitors can deposit their bags and electronic gadgets. Several museum guards are present, and Ms. Abramović.
Empty. And no one knows what will happen in the space.
“That is the point,” Ms. Abramović tells the New York Times. “The idea is that the public are my material, and I am theirs. I will open the gallery myself in the morning and close it at 6 p.m. with my key. I want to understand how I can be in the present moment, be with the public.”
What an exquisite reminder. The space is always empty. Every moment is always waiting to be born.
Here is where you and I enter the frame. Yes, in the performance of our everyday lives, you and I are the actors. Let us reimagine how we consciously and boldly inhabit our empty space. Every day, moment by moment. The Buddhist might say, be still; surrender to stillness; hear the wisdom within. The artist might say, go and create in the empty space; it is your canvas of possibility. I suggest we do both.
The pages that follow introduce us to four keys. These keys will be our guide. They are disarmingly simple. They are entirely common sense. And in the spirit of Peter Brook and Marina Abramović, they are also wickedly playful. That is their beauty.
Key #1: Awaken the Senses
As we more keenly know all of the senses, we uncover a more sumptuous experience of the world. We look at how actors train to be more sensually attuned. We investigate the connection between the senses and emotion. And we celebrate the moments that brim with layers of sense memory.
Key #2: Crave Meaning
As we activate our ability to instantly know meaning, we discover a deeper appreciation for moments as they unfold. We become mindful of how prajna talks to us. We notice how meaning shows up within the mini beats of our days. And we clearly see how the stories we tell ourselves inform the meaning we find.
Key #3: Wave-Ride Energy
“Wave riders” are folks who sense the energy of a moment and choose to ride the wave. As we seize the energy of a moment, we experience the thrill of momentum in our lives. We discover how moments of discomfort propel us into life-changing aha moments. And we appreciate the power of extreme events, when circumstances unfold so rapidly that we have no choice but to ride the wave.
Key #4: Make Time Stand Still
Two fundamental choices make time stand still: We slow down, and we fully surrender to present activity. We observe how practices like meditation and the chi disciplines facilitate a slowdown. We find a new appreciation for the ordinary and the mundane. And we see how the moment we fully immerse ourselves in any activity, we are rewarded with the experience of flow.
The beauty of deploying the four keys? The notion of time suddenly no longer matters.
We are more fully in the here and now.
That is the ultimate beauty of a momentous life.