If you haven’t read Part One you can find it here.
Welcome back. What have we agreed to so far? We are going to try to work less, so we can live more. We are going to try to buy less, so we have more time. And we are going to breath deeply to slow the hamster wheel in our brains.
Mindfulness is the fourth tenet. This doesn’t necessarily mean meditation – though it could. Mindfulness means being present in the moment. We will be mindful of the food we are eating, the people around us, the sounds of our oceans and forests and cities. When we listen to music, we will try to really listen. If we start to rehash some annoying incident, we will return to our breathing and let our breathing guide us back to the music that we used to love so much.
Mindfulness means appreciating sensations. It means realizing that we can have more satisfying experiences just by paying closer attention to the things we love than we ever could from a frenzied holiday or an ear-shattering concert extravaganza. Advertisers tell us we need bigger, brighter, louder – but we are not evolved for all of that, we are evolved to taste subtle differences between berries and delight in the tiny little feet of a bird hopping about in the branches above.
THE PARABLE OF FLAVOURED WATER
This past summer, as I reduced my spending and footprint, I was trying not to drink packaged drinks — though we sometimes had some in the house for my daughter. One day, I took a pitcher, filled it with tap water, threw in a few mint leaves and some of the wild strawberries that have invaded our garden, then added ice and about an inch of apple juice. What a sensation. It was cool and pure and quenched my thirst, but there were also these tiny, subtle threads of flavour, little minuets dancing just outside of certainty. People go gaga over expensive wine for the very same reason — subtle scents and flavours that force you to pay attention. But we can achieve the same effect with less. Crushing a sprig of lavender between our thumb and forefinger. Taking a long look at the subtle patchwork of hues in the windows of an apartment building at night.
Packaged foods have more and more seasoning every year, as though it were an arms race. Have you ever tried Sweet Chili Heat Doritos? It’s like being punched in the eye. Eating foods with too much salt and sugar can dull your senses, making it harder to appreciate the subtle flavours that really make food magical. Instead, take simple, humble tap water — a miracle in itself — and add a few slices of cucumber or a splash of juice and be amazed at how perceptive you really are.
I have often thought about something I call “infinite resolution” — as we steady ourselves and pay closer and closer attention to the world more and more is revealed to us. And this effect doesn’t stop. The longer we look, the more we see. A muddy puddle, surrounded by moss, can become an entire landscape if we sit with it for long enough, studying its miniaturized cartography.
Another realm where we can experience ‘infinite resolution’ is in craft, skill and connoisseurship. I’ve been breakdancing for twenty years, practicing, watching other dancers at practice, watching videos of international competitions, watching videos of my own competitions, dissecting my movements to see how I can improve them. Now, when I watch people dancing, I see things that others cannot. I can see whether a lightning-fast move was done with one or two hands, I notice the intricacies of footwork, I can trace the lines of flight. And I can also feel how much weight and pressure must be on a hand or foot, how fast the kick must be. This is because I have slowly wired big clumps of neurons to come alive whenever I watch dancing. And any skill is like this — music, cosmetics, bird-watching. Anything that you put time into will increase the resolution of the world, adding details to your experience that are invisible to others. All this happens within you, weightlessly, without leaving any footprints. This intensification of experience is a magical kind of consumption: it increases satisfaction and pleasure from exactly the same resources.
To increase mindfulness, try checking in with your senses. If you find yourself caught up in distant worries, notice and quietly name four things you can see, three things you can hear, two things that you can feel and one thing that you can taste or smell. After performing this activity, you will often find your senses heightened and your experiences more satisfying for the next few minutes.
An even faster trick that works for me is to ask myself — where are my feet? And suddenly there they are, pressed against the earth, bearing my weight, steadying my body and aligning above them are my bones and muscles, my flesh and skin, my spine and lungs and heart, my throat and sinuses and skull and brain and eyes — all of my body, together, connected and deeply embedded in this world.
I’m not about to claim I can sustain a more mindful state for very long — but when I do achieve it, ordinary moments become more meaningful and more beautiful. Getting more out of the same material is a whole universe of efficiency that the market economy completely overlooks — and because we have put so little effort into it, there is a huge amount of low-hanging fruit. For most people, you will find better gains in happiness if you put more effort into appreciating what you already have and less effort into obtaining more money and things.
So take a few moments now. Breathe deeply from your belly. Notice four sights, three sounds, two feelings, one taste or smell. Then go and enjoy a favourite song or food. If you don’t have time to do it now, commit to doing it sometime later today.
Part 3 is about Meaning and Ritual.