This morning while reading the New York Times I came across the article “For Some, ‘Tis a Gift to be Simple.” Researchers have discovered that as you get older you are likely to draw as much happiness from an ordinary experience as you are from an extraordinary one. This means whether you are spending your golden years riding a gondola in Venice or building model ships in your basement, the “happiness-making potential of everyday pursuits eventually grows equal to that of ones that are rarer.”
Why do we come to appreciate the simple moments, no matter how ordinary, as we grow older? One possibility offered by researchers is that extraordinary events define us; and once we know who we are, our chosen ordinary pursuits allow us to appreciate and enjoy our hard-won selves. Another idea is that as we grow older we become more aware of the finite time we have to enjoy the everyday. In other words, the nearness of death helps us to appreciate and draw pleasure from the ordinary experiences–find new meaning in what we once deemed meaningless. This is what reminded me of the following Zen story.
One day while walking through the wilderness a man stumbled upon a vicious tiger. He ran but soon came to the edge of a high cliff. Desperate to save himself, he climbed down a vine and dangled over the fatal precipice. As he hung there, two mice appeared from a hole in the cliff and began gnawing on the vine. Suddenly, he noticed on the vine a plump wild strawberry. He plucked it and popped it in his mouth. It was incredibly delicious!
As this man faces death, he is not consumed by his grief or fear but instead entranced by something rather ordinary: a plump wild strawberry. It is not the strawberry that is extraordinary but his way of being with it. He gives himself over to the experience fully so that even at the moment of his impending death he is engaged in the sensuality of living–the sweet taste of the strawberry, the variegated texture of the fruit pulp on his tongue, the sharp smell of the leaves and deep aroma of the dirt, the creaking sounds of the vine as it struggles under his weight, and the rich red color of the fruit as it shines in the sun.
We know that we are all going to die someday so we can experience strawberries like the man in the story anytime we like! Our avoidance of the certainty of our own death flattens our experience of life. Intent on avoiding our mortality, we shun the ordinary and seek out the extraordinary–the glitter and flash of the rare experience offering a distraction from the truth of our impermanence. This hunger for the distracting qualities of the extraordinary can lead to many negative things. Excessive financial debt and unhealthy addictions (to people, substances, food, work, etc) are two prime examples. But the simplicity of the wild strawberry sensually* invites us to return to the experience of being human and being present in our bodies.
I don’t want to wait until the actuarial tables tell me that death is nigh before I can enjoy a simple sunset as much as a catamaran cruise in the Caribbean. So the question is what am I willing to do in order to have this sort of appreciation for the everyday? This research suggests that drawing the fact of our own mortality closer to us is part of the answer. Furthermore, I believe that we can develop specific skills that will allow us to step into this sensuous appreciation of the ordinary more easily. Just imagine what delight the world would offer if you could somehow embody this ability.
Here are two practices I recommend for stepping into this new way of being. Please feel free to ask any questions or post any additional ideas or suggestions in the comments!
Eating Wild Strawberries
Intention: To more fully engage your five senses (hearing, taste, touch, smell, and vision) in a delightful appreciation of the world.
- Find a delicious piece of fruit. It can be a strawberry, peach, apple, orange–whatever you like.
- Wash and clean the fruit. Experience the feeling of the cool water on your fingers as you gently rub the fruit. Appreciate having clean water. Look at the surface of the fruit as you wash it; notice the variations in texture and color.
- Bring the fruit to your face and rub its skin against your lips where some of the most sensitive skin on your body can be found. As you do this, breathe in the aroma of the fruit. Is the skin soft, furry, rough, thick, delicate? Is the smell vibrant, citrus, sweet, cloying, fresh?
- If required, peel the fruit. Listen for the sound. What does it feel like to peel this particular fruit? How do your fingers feel as they pull away the peel? How does the smell change as the peel comes off? What color is the inside of the peel? Touch the unpeeled fruit to your lips again and now experience the texture. It is bumpy, smooth, wet, dry?
- Now bite into the fruit. Is this a juicy fruit? Is eating it a messy experience? Are there seeds you have to contend with? Is there pulp, and does it pop in your mouth? Is the taste sweet or refreshing?
- Now check in with the outside world. What sounds are going on around you? Can you hear other people, birds, or maybe traffic? Can you hear music? What is the light like in the room? What about the temperature? What is the quality of the air in the room?
- Continue eating and checking in with the environment and the sensual experience of eating this fruit. Pay attention to what it sounds like, tastes like, feels like, looks like, and smells like. Notice how it changes during the experience.
- When you are done, wash your hands and enjoy the water as it runs over your sticky fingers. Feel gratitude for your ability to elevate an ordinary experience by simply paying attention.
Intention: To acknowledge the impermanent nature of life in order to more fully appreciate the present moment.
- Shortly after waking, stand in mountain pose.
- Take a few moments to breathe, giving your mind and body some time to silence.
- Say to yourself the following phrases:
- I acknowledge that today’s body is different than yesterday’s body.
- I acknowledge that today’s world is different than yesterday’s world.
- I acknowledge that all things change and that impermanence is the nature of the Universe.
- I acknowledge today as a unique creation that will never occur again.
- Turn your palms out and inhale, sweeping them up and over your head. Let your palms meet and, exhaling, bring them to meet in the prayer position at the center of your chest. Taking one last inhale, remember your pledge and go forth into your day.
* When I use the term “sensuous,” I mean “relating to or affecting the five senses rather than the intellect” and not the more commonly used sexual definition.
**Impermanence is one of the essential Buddhist doctrines. It means that all of existence, without exception, is transient, or in a constant state of flux.