When I was very young I would sometimes, for no reason at all, be overcome by an anticipatory bliss, a punch in the solar plexus that feels like hunger and satisfaction shaking hands, and think to myself, “I wonder what’s going to happen next.”
Occasionally a wonderful thing did follow, like a present or a story, or the opportunity to touch a turtle shell. But everyone knows the cause and effect of anticipating a thing and then getting it. What I’m talking about here is a subtler experience, where the result of the anticipation didn’t impact how or why or when it happened. It was merely a state my mind tended to enter apropos of nothing.
As I got older, the time between those hopeful sparks grew until they faded completely. I regained the ability when I began to think about and write science fiction, where my imagination created possibilities that outpaced reality, or skipped over to a world where the most debilitating issues still plagued humanity. But it was a deliberate kind of optimism, squeezed from my orchard of life’s-not-fair lemons. In daily life, I learned not to ask what might happen next, and I learned the hard way to never make the assertion, “It can’t possibly get any worse.” I muddled through, though, head down and shoulders hunched, until a cornucopia of very bad things happened in a proportionally very short amount of time. Some of those things didn’t stop happening, either, and still continue to this day. I became very cautious, slow to dip a toe into the unknown, preferring an ‘evil that you know’ kind of stance. I became very still and cautious, the modern day equivalent of buttressing myself against the monsters lurking beyond the horizon. But even tiptoeing past the monsters, coated in invisibility spray, isn’t enough to stave off the possibility that there is no set amount of bad things that can happen to a person. My invisibility spray would be washed away in the rain, or I’d sneeze and be back at square one, fighting a tidal wave with a sword, drowning no matter how hard or fast I parried.
Finally, too exhausted to go on, I threw off all my armor, all those little tricks and incantations against doom. I would only concentrate on the next minute. There were many terrible things all around that minute, before and after, but I was only going to focus on what was contained in the space and time within which I presently existed. Now, I am only brushing my teeth. Now for this minute I am only going to chew and swallow. Now I will open this door. And so, minute by minute, I swam out of the abyss. Eventually I hit a smooth patch and I was able to visit the realm of ordinary people once again.
Because I didn’t want to be dragged into those depths again, I began to take steps to fortify my mind’s fortress. I started walking, outside, in parks and around water whenever possible. I started reading about mindfulness and yoga and happiness and life hacks. I made lists and goals and even managed to take back some time that modern life was siphoning off me by the jugful. I discovered, of course, that what I had been doing as a life-saving measure was already a foundation for an entire way of existing, and had been in practice for thousands of years.
So here's what I discovered, and it's a momentous thing. It's the secret to life. More specifically, it's the secret to filling the vessel of time that will take the shape of your life with meaning. So, here it is: Mindfulness is an awareness of the content of the present instant you are in. That doesn't seem like a big deal, and you probably experienced mindfulness when you read that sentence. So why isn't everyone doing it all the time if it's so great? Well, mindfulness is difficult to maintain beyond a few seconds. If you don't believe me, try and do nothing but be aware of your surroundings for sixty seconds, without having a thought about the future or the past. Mindfulness is so slippery that an entire discipline has been developed around it, which you might know by the name meditation.
Meditation, sadly, is a loaded word in our culture. Somehow people associate it with religion or hippie political movements or incense-waving woo-woo. But meditation in its simplest form is the practice of mindfulness for a set amount of time. This regular practice will increase the amount and quality of mindfulness. Meditation teaches you how to be mindful, but the end goal is mindfulness. Not to be too alliterative, but the more mindfulness one's minutes are, the more meaningful one's life becomes. No one, not even the oldest, stillest, up-on-the-highest-mountain-peak monk is mindful all the time. It's merely a state that you can enter at will, and anyone can do it, at any time. And once you get into that habit, you'll find yourself asking yourself, with all the anticipatory bliss that lies within you, "I wonder what's going to happen now."
If you're interested in investigating mindfulness meditation, check out David Cain's blog http://www.raptitude.com/, where he has several ebooks about how to meditate, and a month-long class for beginners called Camp Calm.