When I wake up, I almost instinctively reach for my phone. I go through email and my calendar, check social media, and I think about things I need to do or should have done. Usually, I find reasons to be irritated or unhappy before I’m even fully awake.
It’s a terrible way to begin the day. Recently, though, I started practicing a better way.
I began thinking things could be different when a friend introduced me to Thich Nhat Hahn’s books. (I listed one of them in last year’s holiday post.)
One passage in particular has stayed with me:
“Life is filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. Our breathing, for example, can be very enjoyable...But many people appreciate the joy of breathing only when they have asthma or a stuffed-up nose. We don’t need to wait until we have asthma to enjoy our breathing.
Awareness of the precious elements of happiness is itself the practice of right mindfulness. Elements like these are within us and all around us. In each second of our lives we can enjoy them...Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, the wonder of our breathing. We don’t have to travel anywhere else to do so. We can be in touch with these things right now.”
I wondered: “What would life be like if I could appreciate everyday miracles like breathing, seeing, and walking?”
The science of being present
The reason I don’t appreciate them, I discovered, is that it’s hard. Our brains are wired to wander, to look for threats and issues, rather than to focus and appreciate everyday things.
To better understand this, Harvard psychologists Matt Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert created trackyourhappiness.org. They collected data from tens of thousands of people in over 80 countries about what they’re doing at specific, randomly selected moments throughout the day, how they’re feeling, and whether they’re thinking about something else at that moment.
They found that people reported thinking about other things 47% of the time. (That percentage varies considerably whether you’re showering, commuting, or making love.) Most of those times, people’s minds tend to wander to unpleasant things and they’re considerably less happy compared to when their minds don’t wander. Even when they’re thinking about pleasant things, they’re still less happy.
The title of their talk summarizes their findings: “Want to be happier? Stay in the moment.”
Real people. Real stories.
Still, despite the inspiration and the science, being present was proving too difficult for me and I was thinking I’d never improve. Then, in one week, I listened to two people whose stories made me redouble my efforts.
I listened to Janine Shepherd, a cross-country skier, describe her recovery from a horrific, paralyzing accident. And she described a moment that reminded me of the quote in Thich Nhat Hahn’s book:
“After 6 months [in the spinal ward], it was time to go home. I remember Dad pushing me outside in my wheelchair, wrapped in a plaster body cast, and feeling the sun on my face for the first time. I soaked it up and I thought how could I have ever taken this for granted?”
Later that same week, I listened to Richard Mangino, who lost both his hands and forearms in 2002 and recently underwent one of the first hand/forearm transplant operations. Asked how it felt to have hands again, he said:
“Touching somebody is like electricity going through my hands...it’s just wonderful, just when you touch everybody and they touch you back and they hold your hand.”
The interviewer wanted to know “What’s the next mountain to climb?” and Richard’s response was striking:
“I don’t really feel like I have a mountain to climb...What I want is what I have now...Today is the future. Right now.”
A new morning ritual
I may never become truly mindful. But I can take a step. And I’m starting with my morning ritual.
Instead of waiting for asthma or an accident and looking back at the miracles I’ve missed, I'm trying to gradually train myself to experience every day miracles. Instead of reaching for the phone, I take a deep breath, I smile, and I think of this beautiful passage I heard recently. It includes a wish - something I want for myself and for everyone I know. And thinking about it is a beautiful way to start the day.
“Do you think today is just another day in your life?
It’s not just another day. It’s the one day that is given to you today. It’s given to you. It’s a gift. It’s the only gift that you have right now. And the only appropriate response is gratefulness.
If you do nothing else but to cultivate that response to the great gift that this unique day is. If you learn to respond as if it were the first day in your life and the very last day then you will have spent this day very well.
...I wish you that you would open your heart to all these blessings and let them flow through you that everyone who you will meet on this day will be blessed by you. Just by your eyes, by your smile, by your touch. Just by your presence. Let the gratefulness overflow into blessing all around you.
Then it will really be a good day.”