When was the last time you did nothing?
When I say nothing, I mean truly nothing. Going on Instagram, watching television, and texting friends are all something. When was the last time you simply sat down, alone?
Doing nothing is hard. We all know the feeling of standing in a long line with nothing to do and feeling that familiar itch of boredom. With nothing to focus on, the mind grows frantic, desperately searching for something on which to latch. We think about what we want for lunch. We think about what we should have said in class yesterday. We think about the things that worry us. We think and think and think. With smartphones and social media, the time it takes for us to get distracted is even shorter, as we have something to capture our attention the moment we feel discomfort. I mean, have you ever read the label on the back of a toothpaste bottle because you forgot to take your phone to the toilet and couldn’t bear to just sit there for a few minutes without distraction?
What we feel experientially on a daily basis also has empirical evidence. Researchers from the University of Virginia published a 2014 study in the journal Science, finding that “participants typically did not enjoy spending 6 to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think.” Frighteningly, they also found that “many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.” What is it about the mind that, if left unoccupied, can conjure a mental state so unbearable that even physical pain would be preferable?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and Zen master who recently passed, believed that this psychic torment stems from the mind’s tendency to be constantly lost in thought, forcing us to live either in the past or the future. If we’re worried about something we did or said, we’re ruminating about a past that no longer exists. If we’re concerned about something that will happen tomorrow or next week, we’re thinking about a future that will never exist, at least not in the exact way we envision. We rarely live in the present moment, instead living inside a universe within our minds that doesn’t truly exist.
That scares me. The idea of spending every moment somewhere other than here and now seems strange and off-putting. It seems like when we live our life, we actually miss most of it. But we don’t have to. As Hanh said, “With mindfulness, you can establish yourself in the present in order to touch the wonders of life that are available in that moment.”
Mindfulness is a type of contemplative practice that has its roots in Vipassana — a Buddhist term that roughly translates to “insight” — as well as other Buddhist traditions. Mindfulness simply refers to the practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment without judgment. When one practices mindfulness meditation, they focus on a particular sound or sensation, often their breath, and when their attention wanders, they gently refocus their attention onto that sound or sensation.
If that sounds incredibly boring, that’s because it is — at first. Within seconds, your mind will wander to thoughts that will carry you away. You’ll forget that you’re even trying to meditate, until you suddenly remember — at which point, you should gently bring your attention back to the breath. If this happens, that doesn’t mean you’re meditating incorrectly. That process of losing attention and bringing it back is meditation. As you keep practicing, this will become easier and easier. Eventually, you will stop being carried along by every thought that enters your mind; you will begin to simply observe those thoughts and let them go as soon as they arise.
I want to emphasize that meditation isn’t a treatment or a cure for mental illness. While there is some modest data suggesting that it can help, it is far less effective than standard treatments like therapy and medication. If you feel like you are truly suffering, please ask for help, reach out to a friend, or contact CAPS. While it isn’t a treatment for any sort of illness, however, meditation can be a powerful tool of introspection to learn more about the nature of consciousness, but that needn’t be the reason you choose to meditate or practice mindfulness on a daily basis. You should practice mindfulness simply because being in the present moment is incredibly freeing.
Instead of spending your waking hours lurching from one thought to the next, you can completely immerse yourself in the phenomena around you — the phenomena that you usually don’t even notice. You can deeply listen to the sound of the wind whistling through your ears on your daily walk to class. You can feel the sensation of your feet against the soles of your shoes while in line at CVS. You can scrutinize the texture of the skin on your hands while waiting for class to start. By cultivating a deeper awareness of the world around you, you can realize that the world around you is nothing short of a miracle. Everything we witness — including the fact that we can witness in the first place — is a reminder that existence itself can be wondrous if we choose to see it.
The next time you’re at Starbucks, consider what Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully said. “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the whole earth revolves — slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.”
Only this moment is life.
Right now, the present moment, is the only thing that’s real. By grounding yourself in the here and now, everything else disintegrates and loses importance. The past and future, along with their baggage, no longer exist. Only this moment is life.
VARUN SARASWATHULA is a College senior studying neuroscience from Herndon, VA. His email is email@example.com.