A man on a sunny bench in the park decides to be more present. He gathers his resolve, closes his eyes and begins to focus on his breathing. In comes the breath; out goes the breath; in comes the breath; he wonders if those pigeons are someone’s flock or if they’re wild; if they’re wild, he wonders if they survive on handouts only. He races to retrieve his mind as it gathers speed chasing after the pigeons and brings it back to his bench and once again focuses on his breathing. In, out. In, out. If they’re someone’s flock, he wonders if whoever owns them counts them, or if he just feeds whoever shows up. And if the flock ever recruits other birds and the guy actually ends up with more birds rather than less. Again, the man on the bench nabs his nimble monkey mind and brings it back.
There is a younger person teaching yoga, leading a mindfulness exercise during a sequence of poses. She gently exhorts her students to focus on perfect form in this moment, to bring their minds to the form. She knows their knees are like melting butter by now, late in the class; hers are like steel, and she lets herself feel a tiny tingle of pride for that. How long has it taken her to get to this point? She remembers how she was when she started. Her knees felt like rubber for – oops! She gathers her monkey mind by the nape of the neck and brings it back to the present. She gently reminds her class to do the same.
Later that afternoon, by coincidence the man from the bench and the young yogi are standing next to each other in line at the coffee shop and happen to catch each other’s eye. This should be where integration occurs, where age, gender, race, life stage – where it all has a chance to be bridged in one expression of acknowledgment of mutual existence. Each of them is in there, in their practiced present moment; the stage is set for integration.
It doesn’t happen. As they sweep their glance across each other, for as present as they practice at being, our two heroes look through each other like panes of glass, seeing only inside their minds. The moment and the opportunity pass. The chance for that granule of integration passes out of phase. The line moves forward and the man from the bench orders black coffee. No, just black. Medium. He pays and begins to move away – but moves back to the cashier, almost stepping on the toe of the yogi, behind him. Let me get hers too, he says. The yogi, seeming to enter the shared common present with a jolt, demurs, but the man from the bench insists and she orders. The man pays. The opportunity for integration presents itself again, and this time they take it, glimpsing the common present moment that is life.
Mindfulness is a focus exercise whose purpose is to make us more capable of enjoying the present; it is also, by necessity, practiced within one’s mind. But it cannot stay there. What an extraordinary idea that we might keep such a skill to ourselves, what a supreme act of greed. No. Mindfulness is, like so many other things in this communal world, much more gratifying when it is shared and is at its most powerful when we bring it forth. It is the safety net that protects us as we interact with the social environment that surrounds us. Mindfulness training – seeing things as they really are – lets us see the beauty and wonder of living, to see the people and nature in our world. It is the only way to truly smell the coffee of life.