I was asked to speak on mindfulness recently by a company I work with. For context, I’ve been meditating since my teens. I was introduced to eastern philosophy in Japan, where I lived from 1979-1982. My father was in the Marines; we went as a family to live in the Far East when he got orders to be stationed on the island of Okinawa. It’s funny, but looking at it now, that’s where I learned that every day starts in Asia. I remember how weird it was to me as a ten-year-old kid…when it was eight in the morning Monday on Okinawa, it was eight Sunday night along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. As a child living abroad, I had the sense that America was in the past, by a full twelve hours.
As a teenager, I didn’t have a formal meditation practice where I sat down every day and meditated; it was more of how I related to my thoughts. Sometimes I would sit in what was a purposeful attempt at meditating. On other occasions, I would drift off into a meditative state before falling asleep. I had read a book when I was twelve or thirteen on Shambala. If you are unfamiliar with it, Shambala is a mythical Buddhist kingdom that exists between the Himalayas and the Gobi Desert. The book simply said, empty your mind of all thoughts…after some time, “pop” a thought appears! It’s been almost forty years since I read that book, but that is literally how simple they made it sound.
Silencing my mind was hard! It felt like I was always thinking something. At some point, there would be a few seconds where there was nothing rattling through my mind and then, just like the book said, a thought would pop into it. I didn’t really understand the practice at the time. The neat thing (neat to me anyway) was that all the citizens of Shambala were said to have achieved enlightenment, which is the embodiment of Tibetan Buddhist perfection.
I became a yoga instructor in 2007, after getting out of the Marines the year prior. Mindfulness has played a big part in my life since leaving the military; besides yoga, my first two books are focused on understanding mindfulness and how to master it. I’ve spoken on it quite a bit recently. During the brief video interview, the interviewer asked me, “What’s a good way for someone to practice mindfulness if they’re new to the idea?”
I replied, if someone is new to mindfulness, they should create a new habit of something they find themselves doing every day. Interrupt a pattern. As an example, I suggested turning the a/c off every time you leave your car. My mom does it because she’s worried about draining the battery (it’s cute!) and anytime I need to use her car, I’m always mildly amused by the fact that I turn the car on, then the radio, and then the air conditioning or heater. Normally those things were always on in my car, until I decided I wanted to make a habit of switching off the a/c. This little moment is a step into the world of mindfulness.
I mentioned to the interviewer that we are with our minds twenty-four hours a day; it makes sense to “be present” as much as possible. One of the principle philosophies of yoga is the idea of being present. We strive to be present in a moment. If you’re new to the concept, what does it mean? It means that your attention, your awareness…your entire presence is absorbed by what you are doing in one particular fluid moment. When you’re present, you’re acting in the moment as opposed to reacting to the moment. The more present we are, the more life slows down.
When I look back on all that’s happened over the last year since the pandemic started, I realize how much time I spent living my life looking ahead. Early last January, I sat down with a group of friends and plotted all the Spartan obstacle course races we were going to run in 2020. It sounded fun. Some of us were going to tackle more than twenty races over the course of the year, culminating in three races over three days in Sparta, Greece in early November. Additionally, I was already promoting my second book, The Lighthouse Keeper, which was to be released at the end of March. I had a vision board with goals I wanted to accomplish, values and beliefs I was going to uphold; I was going places. Upon reflection, I realize I wasn’t being present.
When the pandemic really started to impact things and the world began to shut down, it activated something in me I hadn’t felt in a while; it activated my sense of being in combat. There is a strange allure for people who have been in combat; they want the feeling of being in it again. It isn’t that those people are bloodthirsty warmongers; it’s that they like being present. Where else is the immediacy of life felt so poignantly than when your life is on the line? In combat, you aren’t thinking about people back home. You aren’t wondering how many likes your last post on social media received; you are focused on the moment in which you are in. When I think back to my experiences growing up in Japan, I am reminded of bushido, the code of the Samurai. Mindfulness is what made the Samurai such formidable and honorable warriors. The U.S. military doesn’t spend a lot of time on mindfulness or, at least they didn’t when I was in the Marines.
That’s the biggest lesson I’ve learned from the pandemic so far ~ whatever my dreams are, whatever plans I have for my future, the future happens one day at a time. I no longer live my life looking forward to a better tomorrow at the expense of today; I live to make today the best day it can possibly be. Tomorrow, I know, will take care of itself. That’s been hard to do, especially when we are so accustomed to planning our lives out weeks and even months in advance.
Ask yourself, how much of my awareness is focused on the right now? Are you foregoing all the joy and happiness you can be experiencing today because you’re hoping tomorrow is going to be better, or that we’ll be one step closer to things being “back to normal”? Today is normal. Today asks for all your attention, all your awareness. Wouldn’t it be nice to be truly present every day? Maybe it’s time to turn the a/c off every time you turn off your car.