“There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.“
“Things don’t have to be extraordinary to be beautiful. Even the ordinary can be beautiful.”
Sometimes it feels like we have an endless list of things to do. Get up and go to work; wash the dishes; do the laundry; change the battery in the car; feed the cat; fix the roof and it goes on and on every day. If we are lucky we might get the chance to sit down and relax for an hour before bed, and then start it all over again the next morning. How can we possibly manage or balance all the demands on our time, with the rejuvenating benefits of a spiritual or self-development practice? How do we squeeze in the time for sanity maintenance when every day seems to be filled with endless tasks and responsibilities, from morning until night?
Ideally, regardless of how full your days are, it is important to find time for yourself. Time where you don’t have to worry about what’s next to do on the list, time to reflect on the things you can be grateful for. But when that little bit of sanity maintenance time is not possible, is it possible to inject a bit of mindfulness and sanity maintenance into your day without having to stop what you are doing? Sure there is, and it’s right in front of every one of us.
We have all heard the expression stop and smell the roses. The meaning is obvious. Slow down, take notice of the little things around you that you might normally not even notice, like breathing. Exhale, pause, and as you begin to take in your next breath notice it passing through your nostrils, down your trachea and into your bronchial tubes filling up your lungs as your rib cage accommodates the increasing volume and begins to expand. Almost instantly an unimaginable number of oxygen molecules infuse billions of red blood cells which simultaneously give up carbon dioxide. Those billions of infused red blood cells then race through your body with each powerful ejection of the heart sending life-giving oxygen to every muscle and cell in your body. Millions of oxygen-rich red blood cells eventually reach your brain where the cells responsible for your awareness of this moment in time, your awareness of your self, are themselves enriched. Notice that you are ALIVE, you are breathing, you are thinking, you are AWARE, you are conscious of your SELF. You have the capacity to sense, smell, hear, feel, love, touch and experience the world around you in so many ways. This alone is reason to be thankful, grateful and amazed at the symphony of your own existence.
Now try to direct this focused attention on the first thing that appears in your field of view. A cup of coffee on the table perhaps. Notice the many different shades of color reflecting light of varying wave-lengths which your conscious mind perceives as “blue”, “red”, “green”, “white” etc. Notice the symmetrical and circular shape, the curve of the handle that fits so well in your hand, notice the rich aroma of the coffee beans wafting into your nostrils. WOW! How amazing it is that we have this capacity to see, to feel, to taste, to think, to love and of course to appreciate, to feel gratitude. One day, your capacity to experience all this will be gone, possibly for good. So why not appreciate it now, every chance you get. Why not stop and smell the roses simply because you can. Of all the gifts of life, of my life, I hold my gratitude and appreciation for the little things above almost everything else and I can thank the experience of rock climbing for opening my eyes to the beauty and the wonder of the little things in life.
For as long as I can recall, I have always had a powerful and expansive response (strong emotions, feelings of awe, privilege, gratitude etc) when in the wilderness. Sitting quietly on a rock, listening intensely to the sound of the wind through the trees, the rustling of the leaves and occasional knocking sound of branches hitting each other. Looking down at a small ant pushing a small (to me, HUGE to him) ball of dirt or dung up and over leaves, stones and branches like a tiny tank. So many little miracles all around us if you simply take the time to notice the extraordinary. One of my favorite stories I have often shared about seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary comes from rock climbing.
If you spend enough time rock climbing, the physical and technical aspects eventually become second nature and the entire experience becomes a psychological exploration and often, struggle. Here is what I mean by a psychological struggle. We all possess a natural instinct, a survival mechanism when faced with danger or some form of threat. This fight or flight mechanism will engage the sympathetic nervous system to send more blood to the muscles, heart and lungs; constrict blood vessels; dilate pupils; relax the bladder and engage many other system to prepare the body, and the mind, to deal with this threat. When faced with a potential fall on a long climbing route the most obvious and natural psychological response to this threatening event or environment is of course fear. Make no mistake, even rock climbers and other thrill seekers experience fear and the same physiological responses to a threat to their survival as everyone else. They simply learn how to control it.
So now try to imagine this scenario. You have been leading a challenging line for the past hour or so and you are 1000’ feet or more above the ground. You are physically reaching your limits and suddenly you realize that you underestimated the difficulty of the route. Since you were feeling good about your movements and a bit cocky for the first part of the climb you were a bit lazy in placing protection. Consequently, around 15 feet beneath you is your last piece of (poorly placed) protection. Below that one (should it fail) are a couple more pieces of protection 10-15 feet apart, equally poorly placed. The thought that quickly enters your mind is “if I fall now, it will be at least 30 feet of air-time before my rope catches that first bit of protection and if that one fails, I may hit terminal velocity by the time I hit the second one and it will not likely stop my fall” – the day’s climbing will be over quickly. You may DIE. So you IMMEDIATELY (even before the previous thought has finished) realize that you CANNOT indulge the fear wanting to overwhelm your body and mind because you will surely fall. But your mind and body is SCREAMING to be scared shitless, your inescapable situation is SCREAMING this out to you and your mind and body is naturally trying to respond the only way it knows – FIGHT OR FLIGHT! But you know you simply cannot indulge such fears since they will weaken your resolve, destroy your confidence. To allow yourself to become overwhelmed with fear will certainly lead to a diminished will, self-doubt, possibly even an existential surrender to what now may be inevitable – a long fall on uncertain protection. But instead, you SUPPRESS this natural and overwhelming psychological and physiological response to fear/threat in order to focus with a pervasive, single-minded and all-encompassing attention on the small section of rock in front of you. You instantly become invigorated with self-confidence, you feel a calm certainty of the next move. You visualize the placement of your hand in the crack above and gently shift your weight onto your left foot. Your right knee bends and you gently purchase your toe on a small outcropping and gently shift your weight on to this solid placement. You are now back in balance and above you is one or two more moves and with a quick clip you are protected with a solid Friend as you make your exit moves to the top. You are exalted.
This psychological process of being aware of the risk, feeling the fear and fight or flight response starting, realizing you can’t acknowledge the building fear and then suppressing it so you can focus on the problem, all occurs in a split second. This is NOT an easy thing to do – intentionally suppressing your mind and body’s natural sympathetic nervous system response to fear or an immanent threat to survival. But when you do, and you manage to avoid cutting short your climbing day and successfully traverse the problem and reach the top, it is much, much, much better than the best sex you can imagine! And suddenly, instantly, everything becomes EXTRAORDINARY, even the seemingly ordinary.
There is a pervasive calm and certainty in your capabilities which pervades your mind and soul. You can sit quietly observing the smallest little speck of dirt, a drop of water, a scarred and dried out old leaf and what you see, what you experience is a UNIVERSE, you see INFINITY. It is almost as if you see past or through everything and sense or experience its essence, its fundamental nature. The passage of time stops, you are encapsulated in the here, the now, the moment and there is nothing, no thing on your mind other than what your eyes and mind are witnessing, sensing, experiencing in their essence. It is hard to leave this state of mind, this “place” on the mountain, this place in your soul. But when you do leave, you take with you the psychological fingerprint, or echo, of eternity and the wisdom of knowing and experiencing something profound, something extraordinary.
I have had the privilege of experiencing this many times during the 12+ years I spent seriously rock climbing. I cannot see the world, people or anything in it, any other way now. With awe, with gratitude and it is ALL extraordinary to me – nothing is ordinary. Therein lies much of the personal and psychological foundation for my own spirituality and Self cultivation. Even if I were to stop all formal practice or education towards my “Spiritual Path” I will never lose this manner of seeing and experiencing the world. And this capacity to see the extraordinary in the ordinary is within each of us. You don’t have to climb mountains or jump out of an airplane to take notice. Simply stop, take a breath, smell the roses and be aware of the magical wonder of being alive. There is something EXTRAORDINARY in every single aspect of your life. All you need to do is take notice of the EXTRAORDINARY inherent in the ordinary little things around you all the time.
To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.