Last year Joshua Bell, a world-class violinist, was asked by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post to play near an entrance to a Washington, D.C., subway station. His performance was videotaped so that the reactions of commuters could be studied. Bell selected what he considered the most beautiful pieces of music ever written. He stood for hours in a busy station playing one piece after another. Only a few people even noticed him, and at the end of the day, he had collected less than thirty dollars in tips.
Yet all the children who passed him wanted to watch and listen. On the video we can see them tugging on their parents’ arms and turning their faces toward Bell even as they are being led away.
One woman did recognize Bell, and as thousands of fellow commuters rushed by, she listened in amazement to his entire performance. Mostly, though, his playing wafted past ears that, in a workday rush, had no room for music. Of course, no one was expecting him in a subway, and many people have no exposure to classical music. Still, they missed an opportunity for transcendence. Since I read about this experiment, it has become a metaphor for me. I have asked myself, “Do I want to rush past Joshua Bell?”
Long ago in Texas, on the fishing dock with my father, I became aware of the power of a moment. That night I realized that time can be conceptualized in different ways and that it can be stopped and expanded into something grander. The Greeks knew this with their distinction between chronological time, kronos, and sacred time, kairos. Just as with energy, time can be both a wave and a particle, something continuous and something discrete. My idea is that moments are discrete time, complete in themselves and utterly distinct from the habit-bound wave time in which we all live much of our lives. While minutes are earthbound and can be measured, moments both merge with eternal time and exist outside time altogether.
Not all minutes are created equal and only a few become moments. We tend to greet every minute with demands such as: “I want this. I don’t want this. I want more of this. I want less of that.” We have ideas about what our minutes should or should not be. We want sunshine or rain, quiet or company, work or rest. We are such yearning organisms.
Yet there is a sense in which many of us are fighting for our lives. We are struggling to be present for our own experiences. There is no more important task before us, or anything that could bring us more love and joy.
If we are lucky, occasionally we experience a sparkling moment when we break out of our trance of self and are fully present. Sometimes these lead to epiphanies, which present us with aha moments of new understanding. Or our thoughts simply may be “Isn’t this wonderful?” or “Isn’t life amazingly rich and complicated?” Or even, “Doesn’t this look beautiful or taste delicious?” What makes moments distinct is that we are celebrating what actually is.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow called moments “peak experiences” and argued that they were often transformative. Many activists can describe the moment that inspired them to dedicate their lives to a cause. I know a high school girl who watched a film on the child soldiers of Uganda. Natalia was so moved by the film that she worked to share it with all the churches and schools in our town. She collected money for the child soldiers who were in trauma rehabilitation. Before she was out of high school, she was making a film about the Sudanese refugees in our town. Seeing Invisible Children at school had changed her life.
As a therapist, I shared many moments with my clients. I recall one with Wanda, a large, plain, thirty-year-old woman from a small town near Lincoln. At first, she had seemed a rather quiet, bland person, but as she slowly opened up and told me about her life, I realized she was remarkable.
When Wanda was eight, her mother died of breast cancer. She lived with her father, who was a long-distance trucker. When he was home, he was a taciturn TV watcher who had little interest in his daughter. Her mother had been an only child, and her dad was estranged from his family. After her mother’s death, she was pretty much on her own.
Wanda cooked, cleaned and did her school work. Elementary school was lonely because she had no parent to come to programs and help with events. She liked high school better because of the activities. She was in Spanish Club and Pep Club, but she had never been asked on a date. She cried when she told me that.
After high school, she was hired to work in a dairy, and her real life began. She grew close to her coworkers, and for the first time in her life, she was going out to eat and into the city to see movies and concerts. She sometimes watched the boss’s children, whom she came to love. They called her Aunt Wanda.
Wanda wasn’t dating and didn’t feel attractive. However, as we talked, I realize she had every thing she needed to be loved. I remember the day she discovered that. She wondered if anyone would ever love her, and I asked her to name all the people she loved. She surprised herself with the length of the list. I asked softly, “Do they love you back?”
After a while she said, “I guess I am already lovable.” She smiled, her eyes glistening with tears.
Moments bring great joy. My friend Margie writes poems describing walking her daughter’s dog, baking a chocolate pie or flirting with her husband at a traffic light. She is gifted at being present for what most of us would see as ordinary minutes. Margie jokes she has so much fun that she should be charged an excess tax.
My friend Jan and I challenge each other in happiness contests. We tend to do this on dull gray days in February or on mornings when we have tedious work ahead. Late in the day, we’ll e-mail each other our entries. It isn’t that we do anything special, but rather that we appreciate what happens. Our lists are simple: I made some delicious turkey noodle soup. I bought hyacinths at the grocery store. I walked in the snow at sunset or read a good book by the fire. I had a phone call with my daughter and listened to geese flying overhead. When we have these contests, we create our own good days.
When we radiate joy, we attract it. On my best days, when I am out running errands, I try to really look into the faces of the people I encounter. That involves making eye contact and, in my heart, wishing them well. I’ll try to beam happiness their way. When I am capable of this, people often respond by beaming back. Their facial muscles will soften and their voices will be lighter and warmer. This meeting can be a matter of milliseconds, but it turns an interaction into a moment.
Of course, I don’t walk around joy-filled every day. I am still impatient and easily rattled by stress. I have days when I am lost in a fog of self-pity or soul-draining misery. Many mornings I still wake up in a sour mood, and I can ruminate over a casual remark to the point of absurdity. Even now, my fallback expression is a deep and furrowed frown. I continue to hold my rank as the worst Buddhist in the world. But I am more capable of inviting joy into my life.
We all underestimate our need for joy. If we are not careful, we live as if our schedules are our lives. We cross one thing after another off the list. At the end of the day, we have completed our chores, but we haven’t necessarily been present for our own experiences.
Just before she died in 2004, Elisabeth KŸbler-Ross was interviewed for National Public Radio. She said she was at peace with herself. Her body had worn out and she was ready for death. She believed she had led a good, productive life and would go to heaven. I was struck by one remark she made. “I’ll dance among the stars, but I wish I had danced more down below.”
We are what we pay attention to. Sadly, most of the time we are not attending to the world or ourselves. Psychologists estimate we have sixty thousand to seventy thousand thoughts a day, 99 percent of which are more or less what we thought yesterday. Our habits run our lives. Most of the time, we are phoning it in.
In all my years as a therapist, I have never seen people as rushed and distracted as they are now. Everyone is too busy all the time. We have become a nation of multitaskers. By definition, multitasking means the mind is divided and not fully focused on any one event. A very simple definition of mindfulness is doing one thing at a time. If we are planting some turnips, we are doing it properly. If we are reading to a child, that is all we are doing.
I have a long history of doing two or three or seventeen things at once. I am cooking, but planning my next road trip. I am talking on the phone, but wondering if I have a can of tuna handy for lunch. I am bird-watching, but worrying if I have offended someone. I am walking, but even as I smell the French lilacs in the air and notice the heron on the lake, I am thinking of presidential politics. Yet slowly I am discovering that life is best when I am one place at a time; that is to say that when I am cooking, I am cooking. Well, okay, maybe stirring and listening to the radio, but I am not planning a Father’s Day party for the extended family.
Sometimes inhabiting the moment is simple indeed. We hear Louis Armstrong or Chopin on the radio. We taste our lover’s kisses, the pomegranate juice or the salt air. We smell the sage or the jasmine blossom.
Animals can pull us into the moment. One of the reasons pets are so popular is that when we are with them, we share their pleasure in being here now. Pets do not live in clock time, and they allow us to rest from chronological time. We join them in older, animal rhythms.
On winter nights, Jim and I sit in our recliners and look out onto the snow and the lake. We wait for our local fox to appear. When he comes, he runs along our south fence toward the lake. He is the color of a shadow and his fur fluffs out like feathers. He trots onto the dam, runs in tight circles, then pounces on whatever prey is available. Within a few seconds he is gone. Afterward, having seen the fox, we are as giddy as children.
Most people respond to wild animals the way we do. I think it is because, deep within us, we carry something far more ancient than human thoughts. Animal spottings, whether of eagles, grizzlies or dolphins, remind us of our ancient selves.
Because children live in the present, we can join them in fresh experiences. Until they are educated away from living in the moment, that is their natural place. Once my grandson A.B. said, “I love you,” to me on the telephone; I responded in kind. He said urgently, “Nonna, you don’t understand, I love you right now.” He could perceive that he was alive to his experience of love in a way that, at the minute, I wasn’t.
When we surround ourselves with beauty, we are likely to experience a moment. We have our “peak experiences” on the beach or prairie, in a mountain meadow or beside a river. We experience moments at concerts, art galleries or the theater. However, most of us can’t get to these places on a regular basis. To create moments in our daily lives, we must have a new set of skills for making magic out of the ordinary. Psychology and all the great spiritual traditions teach these skills.
To practice living in the moment, I play around with writing haikus, short poems that describe a physical reality, such as snow falling on a plum branch or snails sizzling in a pan, and offer a philosophical/emotional reflection. Actually, I don’t so much write haikus as discover them. When I stop my monkey mind, take a few deep breaths and look around, a haiku will fall into my lap. It isn’t good poetry, but it helps me learn to be in the now.
With a certain attitude, every thing is significant. With an “Are we there yet?” mentality, we are doomed. I’ve seen this in national parks. In a matter of minutes, some tourists will drive into a parking area, jump out of their cars, take a picture and be on their way again. No one has taught them that to enjoy a natural place, one must sit down, be quiet and look, simply look, for a long time. My own egregious example of this is a deeply entrenched rule that I cannot rest or relax until all my work is done. What a deal. I could die of old age before I have met all my responsibilities and done all my chores.
We all live surrounded by temple bells. It can be the ding of an e-mail, the sight of a taxi, a seed pod twirling to the ground or the aroma of coffee. I’ve coached myself to breathe deeply at stop signs and to be aware of my thoughts, my body and my emotions. Most of the time, I forget to do this, but the one in a thousand times when I actually succeed, I enjoy it. I feel calm and relaxed and I drive on refreshed.
I spend much of my time mired in habitual thinking and monkey mind, but I am now aware that our ordinary ways of seeing are but curtains that cover the radiance all around us. When I am fortunate enough to see that radiance, I am comforted. I am less frightened and more optimistic. I trust the universe and my place in it. I do not fear death for myself or for others. I sense that ultimately every thing will be all right for all of us.
The universe seems to be much kinder than I ever imagined.
I hear stories from my friends that inspire me to create yet more moments. A musician named Chris told me about playing music in Kansas. He stayed at the home of an elderly patron of the arts. This woman sponsored many musicians and invited them to stay in her third-floor apartment. Most refused because the woman was a big talker, but Chris enjoyed her conversations. She was intelligent and kind and told him incredible stories. The last time Chris played in her town, this woman was in the hospital dying, but she insisted on returning to her home to host Chris. They had a wonderful last visit. She told him how much his friendship and visits had meant to her. Chris created some sacred time with this woman. He had stopped for Joshua Bell.
Another friend takes pictures of ordinary minutes that become moments under her compassionate attention. Recently I attended her father-in-law’s funeral. As is now common, we watched a slideshow of pictures of the departed. But this display was different. Over the years, my friend had taken many pictures of him doing his ordinary activities. We saw photos of him doing a crossword puzzle, walking with his wife, feeding his birds, digging up bulbs, mowing his grass, making coffee, washing his car and reading stories to his grandchildren. With these photos, my friend had sanctified her father-in-law’s days.
In July, Jim and I traveled with our friend and office partner from Nebraska to Copper Mountain, Colorado, to stay in Jan’s family condo. Nine months earlier, Jan’s husband, Jerry, had a heart attack in this condo. He had been life-flighted to Denver, and a week later died during open-heart surgery.
Jan wanted us to return to Colorado with her, ostensibly to make a financial decision about keeping this condo. However, on a deeper level, Jan realized this condo was the one place in her world where time had stood still. Since last September, her life in Nebraska had moved on. But at the condo, Jerry was as he had been on their last visit. In the odd logic of the heart, Jan could feel close to him there.
Jan, Jim and I have worked together as therapists for thirty years. We have nurtured each other’s children, shared Thanksgiving dinners, and had decades of staff meetings and trips to professional development workshops. In all the years we’ve been partners, we have not had a tense hour or a harsh word between us. Even as I write this, it sounds too good to be true, but it is true. Jim and I were honored to accompany Jan on this pilgrimage.
Now I must say this: Jan and I vacation in different Colorados. Jim and I like to backpack into a wilderness area, find an isolated spot near a creek and stay out of range of humans as long as we can. Jan likes hot showers, coffee shops, soft beds and shopping.
Copper Mountain reminds her of family ski trips, whereas, with its crowds, shops and music piped through the trees, it reminds me of a mall.
We arrived Sunday night, and Monday we acclimated to the altitude. Tuesday, July Fourth, we rented bikes and rode around Lake Dillon. As we biked through Frisco, we came upon the helipad where Jerry had been life-flighted to an ICU in Denver. The shock of that sight almost knocked Jan off her bike and, for some time afterward, left her speechless.
On Wednesday, we woke early and drove over Berthoud Pass to the Indian Peaks Wilderness Area. We parked at the Monarch Lake trailhead and hiked through aspens past the blue mirror of the lake into the pines and snow-bent cedars. We followed tumbling Cascade Creek with its waterfalls cut through cathedral-sized boulders.
At first we talked about the natural beauty and about the possibilities for bears, rockslides and mountain lions, but as the day progressed we grew quieter. We spotted trout in the creek’s dark, clear pools and hiked by columbines the size of saucers. We picked tiny strawberries and admired the wild roses, mountain asters, the Indian paintbrush and salmon-colored pasque flowers. Flowers dotted the meadows like jewels on a soft green shawl, and butterflies flew from one flower to another as if to call our attention to each one’s particular beauty. Hummingbirds buzzed us.
At one point, we heard, then saw, a tree crash in the forest about three hundred yards away from us. Actually, what we heard was a loud crack that could have been a gunshot, a rockslide or thunder. We froze and looked at each other. None of us knew which way to run. As the tree began its descent, it crashed through other trees, loudly and quickly at first, but then more slowly and softly. By the time it reached the forest floor, it shushed down like a baby being put into a cradle.
We rested for a while beside the downed tree. We were not the spring chickens we used to be. I puffed and panted more than when I first hiked this trail twenty years earlier at age thirty-eight. Even Jim, who is a marathon runner, wasn’t bounding over boulders the way he once had. I could almost see our younger selves walking beside us.
When I am in beautiful surroundings, I am always reminded of people I love who are far away in time or place. Beauty dissolves boundaries. The living and the dead are not separated. Magic seems more possible, as does resurrection. As I walked in that green, quiet place, I remembered my last days with my mother. When she lay dying in an ICU in a hospital in Kansas by the slow, muddy Republican River, I comforted her by pretending we were camping beside a mountain stream. I whispered that the sound of her machines gurgling was the sound of a cold, fast-running Colorado creek. We held hands, counted stars and listened to the wind through the pines.
The ghosts of Jim’s parents hovered nearby as well. His mother had died the year before, and his father lay near death in a nursing home. I sensed the presence of our children and old friends who had been on this trail with us before. I could feel the ghosts of Porky and Bess, the porcupines we named after they woke us our first night in this wilderness twenty years ago. They had slipped into our campsite to lick toothpaste off the rocks near our tent. We heard a snorting outside our tent, and we fearfully opened our window, turned on our flashlight and found ourselves face to face with an indolent porcupine couple.
As I thought of other times, I knew that Jerry was with us, too. We had come to banish grief, and for the most part, we had succeeded. But we hadn’t banished memory. In fact, we were flooded with memories of Jerry and of so many others. Not only did we feel a kinship to each other and the natural world, but we felt a kinship to all those who had lived and who would be born.
At the falls, we stopped for a rest and lunch. Jim and Jan hiked on to the site of our first camp. I had injured my knee on a previous mountain climb and it was throbbing and swelling. I stayed behind at a spot close to Cascade Falls. I meditated on the sounds, the spray, the light and the coldness of the water. Every moment of watching was a lesson in time. To try to stop time or to hold on to the past is like trying to stop a waterfall.
Then I spotted the ouzel—a nondescript gray-brown bird about the size of a barn swallow. Ouzels live only in remote areas by waterfalls, and their outstanding characteristic is that they can dive into the rapids, whose pressure would splinter a canoe, and emerge with a small fish. As this ouzel darted in and out of the falls, I followed her path to a large daubed nest about three stories up on the rock face. Two chicks waited for those little fish. Only their orange beaks were visible when their mother appeared with dinner. Once, when the mother was delayed, they peeked out and cheeped so loudly that I could hear them above the roar of the falls. I wondered: “How long in evolutionary time did it take to find the exact set of notes that can be heard over a waterfall? Have ouzels occupied this site since the Midwest was a great inland lake, since before the Native Americans came?”
When Jim and Jan returned, they brought the vertebrae of an elk, three rocks delivered by the last glacier and a porcupine quill, perhaps from a grandchild of Porky and Bess. We watched the hard-working ouzel feed her young, we passed around bread, cheese and apples, and we talked about time. The waterfall itself was formed by millions of years of water trickling across stone. And what are we made of, but the same stardust that made the rock, the ouzel, the aspen and the elk?
Slowly and almost silently, we walked three hours back to the trailhead. There we found someone to photograph us. Tired and hot, we limped to the car in a faraway parking lot. My knee had swollen to the size of a grapefruit, and Jan had blisters on her feet. We were thirsty and achy, yet so jubilant that we stayed in a happiness trance all the way across misty Berthoud Pass and into Copper Mountain.
That wilderness hike was orchestrated for awe, the universal elixir for healing. Always I am transformed by a venture into the great green heart of the world. Cue up the forests, waterfalls, physical exertion and freedom from time. Add in a few marmots, cascades of wildflowers, a red fox, a grove of quaking aspen and a nest of baby ouzels. Beautiful moments are bound to happen.
When I was younger, I thought such experiences were about perfection, the hike without scratches, the sky without clouds, but now I see that mythic days require the swollen knee, the blistered feet, the early afternoon cloudburst and even a little fear. The mountain lion tracks enhance the beauty of the columbine. Embedded in the concept of mythic is the concept of overcoming, of pushing beyond ordinary limits. Awe is the aspen curling upward from a cup of soil in the rock; it is the pasqueflower nodding in the snow.
Pain, as well as beauty, is necessary to give us perspective. We can place our suffering against the backdrop of time and allow our nagging little egos to rest in the great verdant container of the timeless. We feel smaller, yet connected to something bigger and grander.
When I return to Lincoln, I tell my grandchildren about the trip. Since they don’t know what a waterfall looks like, I describe the mother-of-pearl spray, the icy water and the roar of water falling over boulders bigger than their church. They grow wide-eyed at imagined waterfalls. I explain about the ouzel fishing in the falls and her spaceship-shaped mud nest high up on the cliff, higher even than the roof of their church. I tell them about the chicks’ orange beaks and their peeps that can be heard over the sounds of the falls. I describe how they impatiently pulled the silver fish from their mother’s mouth. Then I present them with rocks I carried down from that site. Aidan clutches his to his chest, runs to his dad and says in a hushed voice, “Dad, I have here in my hands a rock from a waterfall with an ouzel.”
As I talk to them, I think, “It goes on.” That is life’s great sorrow and greatest solace. It goes on. A star dies and another is formed in a celestial cycle of birth and death. One mountain crumbles to sand and another explodes into being. An ouzel nest may last ten thousand years, while I will be dust in a hundred. When I truly understand, I know there is only the illusion of time, or rather, that we live both within and outside of time, and that we can be grateful for both experiences.
Excerpted from Seeking Peace by Mary Pipher, by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2009 by Mary Pipher.
Mary Pipher is the author of 11 books including her latest one, A Life in Light: Meditations on Impermanence.