"The Alternative to Thinking All the Time"
by David Cain
"One evening last week, I was sitting on my front stoop waiting for a friend to come over. I brought a book out with me, but instead of reading I just sat there and let my senses take in the scene. I didn’t look or listen for anything in particular, I just let the details of this particular moment in the neighborhood come to me: the quality of the air - heavy and warm, the incoming summer storm kind; birds; two couples having a conversation down the sidewalk; the clinking of dishes coming from inside the house to my right; distant hammering from a construction site somewhere in the blocks behind my house.
There was also a scent that I only recently learned has a name: petrichor. It’s the earthy scent of rain having just fallen on soil after a dry spell. You definitely know it. It was a big part of the overall flavor of the scene.
I engage this kind of receptive awareness often, particularly when I’m waiting for someone, and there’s something very satisfying about it. Every scene in our lives - whatever’s unfolding at any given time in a front yard, a living room, a doctor’s office, a grocery store - has its own unique tone and emotional signature, which you can notice if you’re not talking in your head, which we usually are.
Watching a moment unfold is way more interesting than the repetitive rumination you would otherwise be engaging in. There are a zillion combinations of tones and flavors, and each moment’s ambience is different than any other one. Petrichor alone is worth returning to the present for. It’s such a rich sensation.
Idle mental chatter, on the other hand, seems to come only in a few dull, familiar flavors: worry, rehearsal, explanation, or mindless repetition - of songs, phrases, advertising jingles from the radio. The mind has a habit of ignoring what’s happening in order to describe what has happened or might happen.
Meanwhile, new stuff is happening live, and it’s always fresh and interesting if you stay with it. Often, when I’m watching this live unfolding of sights and scents and sounds, one of those sounds ends up being the footsteps or car door thunk of the person I’m waiting for, which is a pretty neat way for a little “noticing session” to conclude.
Tasting as a hobby: I learned the word petrichor from wine nerds. They’re always scrambling to put words to subtler and subtler qualities they taste in a wine. A wine may give hints of pear, or cedar, or burnt toast. Maybe it tastes of apricot but not quite peach. Oregano but not basil.
Sommeliers - wine-tasting professionals - must learn to detect and identify hundreds of distinct aromas and notes. To train their vocabulary, they sit around tables together, tasting, spitting and comparing adjectives. They’re looking for some kind of linguistic common ground, so that two different people can connect their separate experiences and independently determine whether a wine may or may not be fairly said to contain notes of hazelnut and cilantro.
It sounds like pure pretense, but these descriptors do refer to something real, something that would be experienceable even if we didn’t have words for it. You definitely knew petrichor before you knew it had a name, along with thousands of other rich, present-moment experiences you will never be able to convey to another person.
Wine tasting is nothing but a particularly specific and well-developed way in which human beings have learned to notice their present-moment experience. We can “taste” any present moment in the same way, as long as we make a point of noticing what it’s like. We can’t do it by accident though. When we’re preoccupied by worry and idle thinking, we don’t even recognize that we’re having an experience.
That recognition is the key: to really taste something, to know the experience, you have to remember that you are experiencing something. If you have cup of coffee or tea next to you while you read this, you might not have even noticed you were drinking it, much less how it tasted. Taste it now, knowing you’re tasting something, and you’ll find much more depth there than any previous sips taken on autopilot.
The Only Thing That’s Real: Usually we fail to give our experience much attention, because our thoughts take it all. We can’t bring the wine-taster’s level of attention to the current experience while we’re fixated - as we usually are - on trying to manage our experiences in the abstract: planning, rehearsing, and reliving stuff happening in other places and at other times. Meanwhile, our precious experiences, which are ostensibly the reason we do all that ruminating, are missed.
When people ask me why I meditate, I often say something about reducing stress and improving mood, because those are the simplest benefits to relate. It does those things, but it might not be clear how. You can think of meditation as time set aside just for tasting the present moment, just for seeing what’s actually being offered, putting aside other projects like planning or analyzing.
Due to our conditioning, rumination barges in constantly on this dedicated tasting session. This is not a problem. You forget why you’re there and fall into thinking, planning, rehearsing. No worries, you just come back whenever you realize you’re lost. That’s the practice. It’s not painful unless you insist you should already be better at it than you are.
Over time, this intention to come back to the present, to see how it tastes, becomes natural. More and more, rich experiences of ordinary things just happen. Without trying, you just start feeling the experience fully, when you’re starting your car, when you’re settling into a lawn chair, when your friend’s voice comes on through the phone. The richness in any ordinary experience, when you’re there for it, can be unbelievable. And it happens more and more.
It’s the 21st century, and mindfulness has entered the pop culture mainstream. Even science, as slow and careful as it is, is continually giving us reasons to investigate it for ourselves, yet the most common reason given for not bothering with it is “I don’t have time.”
Meanwhile, we lose years to aimless, ephemeral thinking. The primary experience of the adult human being continues to be rumination, with real life happening in the background. Life can disappear on us just like a cup of coffee consumed on autopilot. In other words, to really experience life itself, as opposed to just more thinking about life, we need to remember we’re having an experience.
Isn’t that crazy? Most of your life - decades in all - will be spent not having the experience life is offering, but thinking about other experiences, striving to avoid certain ones and guarantee others, grasping at types of control and certainty we can never have. The whole time, just in the background, accessible in any moment you feel safe to drop the mental busywork of reactive planning and worrying, is a steady stream of sweet, interesting and complex flavors, fresh ones arising in every moment. That might sound like more pretense, but it’s the opposite: it’s the only thing that’s real."