We are time travelers.
Eyes closed, we can remember back into the past and suddenly we are there – 6 years old, wrapped in blankets next to mom on the couch, half the height we used to be. Or maybe we are reliving the presentation we gave yesterday, thinking about the moments we stumbled over our words – did the audience find it endearing or embarrassing?
We can also project ourselves into the future, predicting and willing things to happen; maybe we’re thinking about this midterm, about writing that essay, about the sweet moment that will come in a week and a few days when we can finally step back and embrace a well-deserved break.
If you have attended any sort of meditation workshop on campus, you are bound to have heard the word “mindfulness” come up a few times. And if so, you probably know that when we are being mindful, we are being “present in the moment.” According to meditation website Mindful, “it suggests that the mind is fully attending to what’s happening, to what you’re doing, to the space you’re moving through.”
And it sounds simple. If I am walking to class, for example, I should focus on the trees I see, feel the sun hitting my back, notice the gravel shifting underneath my footsteps. I shouldn’t be thinking about the class I’m walking to or the next thing on my to-do list. I shouldn’t, but I usually do.
Perhaps having most of our headspace live in the future is a side effect of the quarter system; with 10 weeks of condensed instruction, you have to be ahead of the game to even play it. At Stanford, the speed at which we go about our lives isn’t out of proportion because agility is the norm; however, compare the pace at which we are required to live our lives with what we think is healthy for us, and you start to see a disparity. We need to somehow be in two places at once — the present and the future — and that’s not mental time travel, that’s impossible. Yet people do it anyway.
What’s at stake here? The American Psychology Association published a study that asserts the difference between being “mindless” and “mindful”: “When we are mindless, we are like programmed automatons, treating information in a single-minded and rigid way, as though it were true regardless of the circumstances. When we are mindful, we are open to surprise, oriented in the present moment, sensitive to context and above all, liberated from the tyranny of old mindsets.” The article suggests that when we do not practice mindfulness, our actions turn mindless over time.
To some extent, that makes sense. If we are distracted somehow, or if we aren’t fully invested when we approach a problem, we try solving it based on what we already know, and the “fresh eyes” we try to bring to it aren’t really fresh at all. It’s an anguish that most of us can understand, since it’s hard to relax, unwind and mentally refresh ourselves without feeling slightly guilty for it.
Knowing that mindfulness confers benefits in “health, productivity, overcoming addictions, avoiding burnout and increasing our control and potential as we grow older,” we might consider giving it a serious chance. Perhaps, the first time trying it out, it isn’t about focusing exclusively on the trees and sunlight and concrete while walking to class but about taking concrete steps to try to find peace in small moments throughout the day. It’s about being aware of what you’re feeling, and that can take on a variety of forms.
Set aside just a few minutes each day to think about nothing, to simply just be. And if it helps, great. If it doesn’t, then at least you can say you tried it out. Be present now — remember to take care of yourself as final exams approach us. Everything else can wait.
Contact Amanda Rizkalla at amariz ‘at’ stanford.edu.