Whenever I start to do something, I have an annoying habit of wondering if I should be doing something else. Whether it’s reading, or writing, checking e-mail or doing household chores, or even relaxing on a Saturday afternoon, I often have this nagging feeling that there’s something else better or more important or more meaningful I should be doing. I’ve noticed the same thought pattern seems to plague some of my coaching clients, too.
We’re often told we should “make the most of every moment” or “live life to the fullest” because our lives are so short, but I find that also creates a lot of pressure: How do we make the most of every moment? How do we know if we’re living our lives to the fullest? What does that even mean? I think that’s a lot of what’s behind that nagging feeling I often have that I should be doing something else.
The best answer I’ve heard to this dilemma was from a woman I know who was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago. After her diagnosis, she said, people would say to her: “well, carpé diem – enjoy your life now!” It left her feeling confused and frustrated. What was she supposed to do, go skydiving?
“I’ve come to realize that what it means for me,” she said recently, “is just be present.” Be present for whatever you’re doing, whenever you’re doing it, whether it’s talking with a friend or drinking your morning cup of coffee. Really be there. Have the experience. If it’s a good one, you can savor it. If it’s an unpleasant one, stick around, because there’s probably something you can learn from it. Either way, show up for it – stop worrying about what else might be out there that you don’t know about; stop planning for the future or stewing about the past.
This is the essence of mindfulness. In his book, Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness, psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar advises readers to read — and re-read — an essay written by Helen Keller that appeared in the January 1933 issue of The Atlantic.
Titled Three Days to See, the essay concludes:
I who am blind can give one hint to those who see — one admonition to those who would make full use of the gift of sight: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind. And the same method can be applied to the other senses. Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object you want to touch as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. Make the most of every sense; glory in all the facets of pleasure and beauty which the world reveals to you through the several means of contact which Nature provides. But of all the senses, I am sure that sight must be the most delightful.
Since reading this, when I find myself restless or dissatisfied, I’ll occasionally close my eyes for a few moments, just to imagine what it would be like not to see. When I open them, I have a renewed appreciation for what I find.