“What are you doing right now?”

Every moment is a choice, and I’ve been choosing poorly. Here’s an example, and a practice that’s making a difference.

Dinner for six

I went to dinner with my five children this week. They range in ages from 5 to 20, so you can imagine what’s going on at the table. The youngest one is complaining he doesn’t like the food there. Two of them are on their phone. There are minor arguments about seating.

So…what would you guess I’m thinking about during dinner?

  1. Things the kid should/shouldn’t be doing.
  2. What happened at work during the day.
  3. Things I need to do.
  4. The taste of the food.
  5. The people around me.

What would you be thinking about?

A simple practice

I’m slowly learning that I have a choice. I could focus on what's wrong. I could distract myself by letting my mind wander. Or I could try to shift my attention to the miracles that are right in front of me, savoring what I’m doing and who I’m with.

Such a choice was captured in a short essay by the buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh titled “What are you doing?”

“One day as I walked through the kitchen, I saw someone cleaning vegetables and I asked, “What are you doing?” I was playing the role of a spiritual friend. Even though it was obvious that they were washing vegetables, I asked the question to wake the person up to how happy they could be just washing the vegetables. If we aren’t doing something with joy, that moment is wasted.”

What are you doing right now?

The number of choices each day

The buddhist Shōbōgenzō text from the 13th century described just how many moments we have each day.

“There are sixty-five moments within the time it takes for someone to snap his fingers…in the passing of a single day and night there are sixty-four hundred million, ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty moments.”

I am not mindful of almost all of these moments. But I’m trying to change that. I know that if I can be present for more moments each day, my life can be fuller, and I can experience more joy.

Throughout the day, you can be your own spiritual friend by asking yourself, “What am I doing right now?”

Wake up to how happy you could be.



Taming the hamsters in my head

Spinning, spinning, spinning “Are you okay, darling?”

My wife heard me cursing to myself in the shower and she was concerned. It was a normal day and a normal shower. But I was so busy thinking about things that made me angry that I was muttering out loud.

Instead of trying to rationalize my insanity (“Nothing, dear! Just having an imaginary conflict in my head.”), I decided to try and change.

Here’s what I learned.

The meanest hamster

My inner critic

My first insight into what was going on came from a book on cognitive behavior therapy called “Self-Esteem”. In the very beginning, the authors introduce the concept of the pathological inner critic, the voice in your head that tells you what you could and should be doing.

One of the first exercises in the book is to simply monitor your critic and write down what he says. Here’s an excerpt from a 24 year old teacher:

"8:15 The principal must be sick of my getting here late.

8:40 Skimpy lesson plan. God I’m lazy.

9:30 These kids are slow and I’m not helping them much.

9:45 Stupid to send Sheila with the lunch list, she’ll fool around in the halls.

10:00 What kind of teacher are you? These kids are moving ahead so slow.

12:15 Stupid remark in the lunchroom.

12:20 Why am I so inane?

2:20 It was a madhouse today. When will I learn to control the class?

2:35 Why don’t I get some of the kids drawings on the wall boards? I’m so disorganized.

3:10 Parked like an idiot - look at the angle of the car.

3:40 Look at the mess. Nice housekeeping.”

I remember chuckling when I first read this. Then, after monitoring my own critic, I realized how much worse off I was. The authors write that “a loud, voluble critic is toxic.” And now I could see, for the first time, how the hundreds of negative reinforcements in my head each day were poisoning me.

Hamster city

So many hamsters!

I soon I realized that my inner critic was just one of many hamsters in my head. Whenever the critic took a break, my mind would be spinning about something else, replaying past events or worrying about future events.

It was around this time that I started reading about “being present.” And I noticed how books as different as “The Miracle of Mindfulness”, “The Willpower Instinct”, “Flow”, “Manage Your Day-to-Day” and “Are Your Ready to Succeed?” all highlighted the power of quieting the mind.

Certainly, part of the reason to do this is to change the habit of hurrying so you can appreciate the present moment and be happier. And yet another important reason is to be calmer so you can think and act more intentionally instead of (over)reacting to every thought and emotion.

Using the same quote from “Presence” I cited last week, quieting the mind is a key to being effective:

“First you slow down and look deeply into yourself and the world until you start to be present to what’s trying to emerge. Then you move back into the world with a unique capacity to act and create.”

Changing the hamster habit

My sleeping hamster (as seen on hamster-palace.com)

While the wisdom in the books seemed irrefutable, nothing really changed for me for quite some time. It was only when I started touching the treadmill - taking a small first step - that I begin to develop new habits.

Of course, I started in the shower. When the hamsters started to stir, whether it was my inner critic or a replay of some conflict, I’d breathe in and out a few times, feel the water, and smile. I’d remind myself that “today was not just another day in my life” and I’d be grateful for the hot and cold water at my fingertips. Before the hamsters had a chance to wake up and start running around my head, I was able to transform my expletive-laden shower into a positive experience.

Just as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, I soon began looking for other ways I could practice taming the hamsters throughout the day: washing the dishes, making coffee, walking to work.

“Even when you are driving your car, you can practice. Take advantage of that moment to cultivate mindfulness....Breathe in and breathe out, and remain aware of everything that goes on inside you when, for example, you come to a red light. You look at the red light and you smile. The red light is not your enemy. It is a friend who is helping you come back to yourself.”

I’m no monk, but I don’t curse in the shower or get angry about traffic any more. I’m practicing hundreds of times a day now, gradually getting calmer and happier. Gradually becoming more intentional and more effective.

People first wrote about quieting the mind more than 2500 years ago and there are reasons why so many books are still being written on the topic: it's important and it works.

Changing the habit of hurrying

In a fogDo you ever feel you don’t have time to do the things you really want to do? Or you’re so busy doing that there’s no time for enjoying? Do you ever say, wistfully, “Where did the time go?”

I used to say that all the time. Some days, I'd feel as though I was running around in a fog, frenetically racing to get through the day.

Then something clicked.

The most valuable gift I ever got

A wake-up call

My best friends tend to give me self-help books. Books with titles like “Self-Esteem” and “Healing The Shame That Binds You” that attract looks of pity from fellow subway riders. They're not everyone’s idea of the perfect gift, perhaps, but I genuinely appreciate them.

One of the books was “Peace Is Every Step” by Thich Nhat Hanh. In simple language, he teaches how you can find joy and peace in the simple things all around you. When I first read the book a little over three years ago, a particular passage rang true like an alarm clock waking me from my sleep-running through each day:

“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. I enjoy breathing every day. 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."

“That’s me!” I thought. Hurrying through life and missing it! Waiting till it’s too late to appreciate the things right in front of me!

It made me stop and think: what if, like the book said, you could find joy and peace in moments throughout the day instead of striving for happiness in the future?

Touching the treadmill

The simple pleasures

Since then, I’ve been trying all sorts of ways to do just that. Breathing. Meditating. And I discovered how difficult it is to do something as simple as “being present”. It seemed impossible to change my habit of hurrying. My mind kept racing ahead or looking behind and I couldn’t seem to stop it.

The thing that’s helped me is something I wrote about last week: “touching the treadmill”. That post was about how starting with even a ridiculously simple first action can help you make progress towards some very big changes. Well, in Buddhism it’s said there are 90,000 subtle gestures to practice. So instead of the audacious goal of “Be present!”, I started with something much smaller and appealing. For example, I would try and focus for a minute while drinking a cup of coffee, getting dressed, or taking a shower.

Here’s something you might try yourself.

The Orange Meditation

Orange MeditationThe "Orange Meditation", from Thich Nhat Hahn's “Your True Home”, captures how you can transform the simple act of eating an orange into something altogether different.

“Take the time to eat an orange in mindfulness. If you eat an orange in forgetfulness, caught in your anxiety and sorrow, the orange is not really there. But if you bring your mind and body together to produce true presence, you can see that the orange is a miracle.

Peel the orange. Smell the fruit. See the orange blossoms in the orange, and the rain and the sun that have gone through the orange blossoms. The orange has taken several months to bring this wonder to you. Put a section in your mouth, close your mouth mindfully, and with mindfulness feel the juice coming out of the orange. Taste the sweetness.

Do you have the time to do so? If you don’t think you have time to eat an orange like this, what are you using that time for? Are you using your time to worry, or using your time to live?”

Try it yourself. Pick one of your 90,000 gestures and, whatever that one thing is, do it with your full attention to unlock the miracle within that seemingly mundane moment.

Don’t hurry through life, racing to get to the end. Don’t wait till you lose something to appreciate what you used to have. Take a simple step now. Start living your life and each and every moment in it.