Personal Development

Mindfulness Means Letting Things Surprise You

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One of the hardest things about trying to be mindful is that it is often powerfully boring.

You’re trying to pay close and gentle attention to the ordinary experiences of life — sipping tea, opening a door, breathing in through your nose — and this is supposed to transform your life if you keep at it.

But it’s hard to pay this much attention to ordinary life stuff, because you already know what’s going to happen. You already know what it feels like to sip tea and walk down a sidewalk and pass through a door. It’s hard to give things more attention than they seem to need.

I’ve been practicing mindfulness for a long time, and it has transformed my life, and I still periodically run into this same problem. The rustle of leaves or the inner caress of the breath only seems to bear so much attention, so much looking and noticing, before you want to say, “Okay, I see it. What next?”

Seen it

Four days into a silent meditation retreat in Washington state this September, I described my latest encounter with this problem to the teacher. She said to forget about concentration or mindfulness, and certainly any aspiration to achieve anything with them before going home. “For the rest of the retreat,” she said, “Your only goal should be to enjoy yourself and appreciate what’s happening. Forget this idea of mindfulness.”

At first this sounded like a pragmatic compromise. Evidently I was too mentally clogged up to get any serious practice done in the few days I had left, but at least I could enjoy it as a vacation.

When I went for a walk after that, though, it all fell into place. Instead of trying to “mindfulness” the falling leaves and babbling brooks, I just looked at them with the intention of appreciating what they were like. The concentration and equanimity quickly returned, and the sense of straining to be mindful went away.

This is the famous “beginners mind” lesson. After overcomplicating the goal, as we humans inevitably do, you drop all the ideas and anxieties you’ve built up around the concept of “mindfulness,” and just observe the thing in question with the simple intention to see what it’s like. And we find we can do that.

May resist being mindfulnessed

To see what something is like, you just have to take a conscious interest in it. To appreciate a stream, for example, you only need to observe, maybe even admire, whatever qualities it happens to be showing you — its glassy little knots of water, its radiating coldness, the brown floaties slipping around its rocks, its relentless babbling. You let its most apparent qualities strike you, whatever they are.

However, as I said above, it can be hard to pay sustained attention to ordinary things — falling leaves, choruses of birds, cars accelerating away after turning — because you’ve seen these things so many times. You already know what’s going to happen if you continue observing. The leaf will hit the ground. The birds will keep chirping. The car will disappear around the corner and its engine noise will fade into the background. The brook will babble. None of this is new or exciting, so the mind defaults back to idle thinking or some other source of stimulation. The curse of adult knowledge inevitably destroys the kind of childhood wonder that would make mindfulness easy.

Wants to show you something

This is one of the major obstacles to practicing mindfulness with any regularity: you need to be interested in experience in order to observe it, but how do you sustain an interest in the mundane stuff of life, when it’s mundane by definition?

Coming Around the Corner

In You Are Here, I described a simple practice called “Coming Around the Corner.” It takes about five seconds. You do it when you’re walking around a thing that blocks your vision, such as a wall or building.

As you move around the corner, you focus just past the edge of the wall, and observe a little scene being revealed:

Sometimes there’s a human interaction going on: parents giving instructions to their kids, or teenagers trying to look casual and disaffected in front of each other, or strangers waiting for the bus together. Or maybe you discover a squirrel burying something, thinking he’s alone. Maybe there’s an argument going on. Or maybe it’s just a mailbox and an overgrown sidewalk. Once in a while, you round the corner to reveal somebody you know.

You Are Here: A Modern Person’s Guide to Living in the Present

The point is that it’s always a surprise. Even if you’re very familiar with this particular corner, and you think you already know what you’ll see, what’s revealed is never quite what you expect, and that trace of mystery is interesting enough to sustain real, mindful attention throughout the few seconds it takes to reveal it.

You thought you knew, but you didn’t

The Coming Around the Corner practice is a little gateway into non-boring mindfulness practice. Whenever you’re turning a corner, or passing through a door, you can always be mindful for three seconds or so while you watch the new scene unfold. It’s not boring and you can always do it. Great. Progress. You have a sustainable mindfulness practice.

Life is made of this and nothing else

Once you start observing and appreciating these tiny surprises, you might notice life is made of them. When you open the cupboard to put away a dish, the shape of little towers of plates and bowls, and the way the kitchen light floods in to reveal them, never looks quite like you expect. You can let this, or any other experience, surprise you with what it’s really like. The way your coat comfortably settles on your shoulders when you slip it on — it never feels quite like you might expect it to. The slight effort it takes to observe what an experience is really like, regardless of expectations — that is mindfulness.

Every single sensory experience — and your life consists of nothing else — can be allowed to surprise you in this way, and the little surprise alone is worth that slight effort. It makes virtually any moment at least as interesting as opening a fortune cookie, except that instead of a disappointing platitude, you get a little vignette of life unfolding. A perfect little work of art.

Small but worthwhile

It’s astonishing to realize you never know quite what work of art will be born from that building corner. As you look on, a brown wiener dog wearing a knit sweater trots out from the edge, followed by its leash and owner, then a lamp post partly styled like a roman column, next to a segment of sidewalk with an Idaho-shaped asphalt patch on one side. As long as you’re watching for the next little scene to be born before your eyes, you are mindful.

Interesting and Productive

Watching these scenes emerge is an inherently interesting activity to our curious human minds. You literally can’t know what you’re about to see, except at the lowest possible resolution — there will be a sidewalk, there will be street lighting, there might be people. But you don’t know what the actual spectacle of it, the experience of it, is going to be.

Not expected

(Even the “industrial-strength” mindfulness practice of serious, prolonged meditation relies on this same willingness to be surprised by the next thing. You follow the breath for minutes or hours by taking an interest in what this breath is actually like — how it wavers, how it squeezes the diaphragm at its peak, how it cools the nostrils, and how each of these experiences dies off and something else emerges from it.)

The surprise is almost always a minor one, but watching for it is certainly more delightful than another five seconds of pointless rumination.

It is also more productive. Each time you attend to a little surprise, rather than live yet another moment on autopilot, you build your skill and intuition for mindfulness, and you break up the momentum of reflexive and automatic living. To allow yourself to be surprised is to be mindful, and you can allow any moment to surprise you. It only takes a few seconds of attention, and you can do it as often as every few seconds.

Surprisingly surprising

You actually don’t know what the eggshell is going to sound like when it plops into the bin. You don’t know how it’s going to feel to pull your sock off, how the chair will sound when you sit in it, how the room will change complexion when you flip the light switch, or how the warm water will feel on your hands. Watch these tiny things happen and let them surprise you. There are fortune cookies everywhere.


Photos by M. Bericchia, Intricate Explorer, A. Spratt, L. Bravo, V. N. Mathisen, S. Bindea, Fran, and A. Kehmeier

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