Maximum mindfulness

“Do every act of your life as though it were the very last act of your life.”

Marcus Aurelius

I never climbed Mt. Everest, but I sure wanted to.

As a kid, it was one of my favorite daydreams. I’d devour books about the big mountain and savor the descriptions of the Khumbu glacier, the treacherous icefall, the Western Cwm, the “death zone” and the Hillary Step. And most of all, I wondered about the summit. What was the view like? And how would it feel to be up there?

Of course, there’d be the years of preparation, the training climbs, the logistics, the travel and the trek to base camp. And then, after suffering an extended period of intense cold, punishing fatigue and constant danger, the climactic day would arrive. The team would rally at 2 am, organize a quick brew and head up the summit ridge by headlamp. If all went well, you’d take those last few steps, embrace your partners, maybe plant a flag, and then what?

Naturally, you’d be elated and filled with a sense of extreme satisfaction. But what would your attention be like? Let’s suppose that you’re blessed with good weather and clear skies–the tallest, most spectacular mountains on earth stretching out before you in every direction. It’s the rarest of moments; in all probability you’ll never be here again. Even for professional mountaineers, such views are precious; there’s no telling when you might be back.

And so you try your best to drink it all in. You might well reflect on your friends, family and loved ones back home, but in general your attention would be intensely focused. You’d want to see it all and burn it into your memory. You’d want to know every shape, every color and every shade of light. You wouldn’t be distracted by the trivia of an ordinary day, the traffic on the freeway, the balance in your bank account or the length of your to-do list. No, your mindfulness would be singular and complete. You’d soak it in, bathing in the experience, living it as completely as possible.

Mindfulness is all the rage these days, and everyone from yoga teachers to corporate managers are telling us we need to practice more of it. We tell one another to be more mindful of the present moment and we prescribe meditation to one another. This advice is surely valuable, but what we really need are specific examples of what maximum mindfulness might actually feel like. To say “be mindful in every moment” is a laudable objective, but we still need reference points to bring it home.

The summit of Mt. Everest is a perfect metaphor for mindful living because it keeps us poised in the midst of challenge and ambiguity. As every climber knows, it’s the descent that holds the most danger and opportunity for screw ups. Not only is down-climbing more difficult, you’re already exhausted, both physically and mentally; you'll need your best judgment just when you’re most compromised. And so even while on the summit, the descent looms in the back of the climber’s mind. The summit, no matter how breathtaking in its beauty, is no final accomplishment, no steady-state place of security where one can truly rest. The weather is coming in, darkness is looming and you’re massively dehydrated. No matter the intensity or the quality of the view, you’ve got to embrace the uncertainty ahead. This is life.

view from summit of everest
view from summit of everest

But moments of maximum mindfulness are not all about adventure, challenge and danger. Just imagine this scene of domestic tranquility: You’ve just woken up next to your lover after a long night of glorious love-making and blissful sleep. It’s still early and your lover is sleeping peacefully. You slip out of bed as quietly as possible and head to the kitchen; your plan is to prepare coffee and treats for a breakfast in bed. But stealth is essential; you don’t want to wake your lover, so you move with perfect care. You open the cabinet slowly and retrieve the coffee without a sound. You fill the kettle with intention, running just enough water to do the job. You gently place it on the burner and turn on the heat, then arrange the cups, filters and other items, all with the utmost care. This instance of precious, mindful attention can be a model for attentive living in general.

Or, for something more exotic, let's suppose that by some freak confluence of good fortune, you are gifted with a few nights in a hyper-luxury hotel. Perhaps, just suppose, the Presidential Suite, Hotel Cala di Volpe in Sardinia, Italy. For $32,000 per night, you'll enjoy outrageous comfort, beautiful views, your own personal pool, wine cellar and gym. Of course, at this rate, time is going to fly by at incredible speed. You're never going to be here again, that's for certain, and you'll want to drink in every moment with every cell in your body. Can you focus your attention completely on every detail and every nuance?

Starwood Hotels

These real-world examples are instructive, but for maximum mindfulness, nothing can beat a sci-fi version of full attention. Imagine this: You’re loading groceries into your car at the supermarket, fully absorbed in the familiar tasks of a routine day. You’re ruminating over your bloated to-do list and the fact that you really need to be making more money when suddenly, an unfamiliar, high-pitched sound seizes your attention. You look up into the sky and moments later, an alien space ship appears overhead. It’s so big that it blots out half the sky and it hangs there in blatant defiance of the laws of physics.

Stunned, you drop your grocery bag and fixate all your attention on this most unexpected and unfamiliar object. You’ve never seen anything remotely like it before. It’s enormous beyond imagining, as big as a mountain range, suspended in the sky without any visible support. The noon day sun goes dark and everyone around you is fixated on the spectacle unfolding above.

Naturally, you're gripped with a mix of wonder and curiosity, not to mention a substantial measure of anxiety, even fear. This is a childhood fantasy come to life, an event so compelling and improbable that you can’t possibly look away. All your normal tasks and commitments are immediately forgotten, moved directly to a distant back burner. Your attention is complete and pure. Your curiosity is maximally engaged; every cell in your body is on full alert, trying to make sense of this singular event.

Of course, it’s easy to be mindful in these special moments of life. Peak moments are rare; they stand out in our consciousness, sharpening our attention to nuance and detail. So the challenge before us is this: Can we bring these exceptional moments of mindfulness to bear on the ordinary and familiar? Can we bring that Mt. Everest summit attention to the familiar view from your bedroom window? Can you prepare tonight’s dinner with the same level of mindful zanshin as if your lover were asleep in the next room? And most of all, can you look at your world with the same sense of astonished wonder as you summoned up when the aliens arrived? Can you treat the familiar as if it was extraordinary?

Why not?

All it takes is practice.