More words of wisdom from the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “We have more possibilities available in each moment than we realize.” Photo by Marloes/Courtesy of Wiki Commons
You’re holding a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. You only want a bite and don’t want to dirty a bowl, so you dig your spoon straight in. That first taste is fabulous. The second isn’t as great because your taste buds are starting to freeze, so the flavor doesn’t register as well. Stop there: That’s as good as the ice-cream experience gets.
I don’t stop there. I get three bites in and then lose consciousness, coming to when I’m scraping that sad thin ring circling the bottom of the nearly empty cylinder. I have a painful brain freeze and some mild self-loathing. That’s the perfect metaphor for my life. I’ve gobbled most of it down without tasting it.
I have strong, often misguided, hippie leanings that nag me to try to get more out of life. Yoga, prayer, psychology, meditation, spirituality…. I’ve tried them all. Between the bunk and snake oil smelling of patchouli, I’ve found a few powerful tools that have helped. Chief among these is mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the psychological process of bringing one’s attention to experiences occurring in the present moment. In short, mindfulness is being present in the present. Buddhists have been working on this since 500 BC. It was difficult back then, but it’s gotten considerably harder in the cell-phone age, where we text while driving and hold conversations while both parties stare at Instagram instead of each other. We live in an era where multitasking is mistakenly considered a better use of time, like you’re being super-productive by half-assing two or three things at once rather than fully benefiting from one experience.
I’m a longtime half-asser/multitasker. I often drive past my exit because I’m on the phone or listening to music. I read pages of books and retain nothing because I’m thinking about taxes, guitars, sex, etc. instead of what I’m reading. I play entire club gigs on autopilot, half-following the plot of a TV show onscreen silently above the bar rather than paying attention to what I’m playing. In summary, I’m not accomplishing the prime directive because my mind is divided.
As I reach the halfway mark of life, it occurs to me that if I continue dwelling on the past, future, or elsewhere rather than the present, what little remains of this joyride will slip by unnoticed. I’m okay with zoning out during the drudgery, but I want to be present for the fun parts, like music.
Last week I arrived early for a club date I was subbing. My buddy Danny Muhammad was playing for the band in the shift before my shift, so I was thrilled to get the chance to hear him. Danny is a brilliant player who switches seamlessly every few bars between pedal steel and a Tele resting on his lap. I’ve watched Danny for 20 years. Every time I see him, he plays something I’ve never heard anybody play before. After his set, as Danny was tearing down and I was setting up, I told him how his playing always amazes me. Danny humbly replied, “Thanks John, I just try to play with purpose.” That’s mindfulness. Danny is in the moment, listening, feeling, thinking, exploring, and improving his already incredible skills. I experienced a moment of self-disgust as I thought about the countless hours I’d wasted mindlessly playing music in clubs like this, my fingers repeating patterns they’ve done a thousand times before while my monkey brain ran wild—far, far away. I’d be a much better musician today had I been mindful like Danny Muhammad.
Watching Danny was so inspiring that when I went back on tour I had to talk to my bandmates about Danny’s “play with purpose” concept. Reggie Bradley Smith, our musical director and keyboardist, played a killer show that night, going to a Bill Evans, cool-jazz-ish place during several interludes. It was unlike anything I’d heard him play during our four years of touring together. I asked Reggie about it and he said, “I played every solo tonight with my eyes closed. It makes me listen more closely. I’m more conscious about my note choices when I turn off the sight and just listen.” Playing with your eyes closed live in front of 5,000 people is a total baller move, but it makes perfect sense that you’re going to be mindful when you’re walking a tightrope blindfolded.
Similarly, our guitarist, Texas badass Travis “Too Tall” Bettis, played two solos that were so mind-blowingly unexpected they had me thinking, “Where the hell did that come from?” Travis said, “When I start with something I’m comfortable with, I think ‘Why did I do that?’ Because I know I’m going to follow that with something else I’m comfortable with, like that same old pentatonic box. It feels like I resorted back to eighth grade. But when I start with something I’m not sure of, it gets interesting. Nobody knows where it’s going to go.” Taking chances wakes you up, and makes you present in the present.
The rule of the universe is you must be present to win. If something is worth doing, it’s worth doing wholeheartedly. Take chances, live with purpose, be mindful, and life will quit slipping past you unnoticed. As Buddhist monk and author Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.”