I've often wondered why people peek through their fingers during the scary parts of movies. Although I don't watch scary movies much anymore, I can remember covering my eyes during tense moments and looking through the bars of my fingers at the partially-obscured screen. Somehow it makes it better, but why?
A month ago I was curled on the couch watching my favorite soccer team, Liverpool F.C., play Tottenham Hotspur. Within the first five minutes Spurs scored and it was clear that it was not going to be a good day for us. As I watched the game, I realized that I wasn't looking directly at the screen. Instead, I cast my gaze 30-degrees to the right and looked out the patio door, letting the corner of my left eye monitor the game while I gazed at our beautiful Eastern Pine and the blue sky above.
And then two things struck me. First, this is why we watch the scary bits through our fingers; if we're not fully engaged in the movie, if our fingers mediate and restrict our view of the screen, then we don't get as scared.
The second realization is more of a metaphor. My intention was to watch the Liverpool game, but I cast my attention elsewhere. I don't like to see my team lose, so enjoying the view mitigated the dreadful play on the big screen.
But in many ways, this is how we go through life--dividing our attention, never fully mindful of any moment. We drive to work while thinking of what to cook for dinner. We eat lunch while checking facebook. We talk to our spouse while running through a mental to-do list. We do one thing while mentally doing something else. It's like going through life always peeking through your fingers, never fully engaged with the moment.
Mindfulness is continuous awareness of our bodies, emotions, and thoughts, as well as the immediate world around us. When practicing mindfulness, we do one thing at a time and stay present with what we are doing. It is a practice that can lead us to greater peace and understanding.
I use my morning commute as a consistent mindfulness practice. I don't turn on the radio. I don't talk on the phone. Instead I stay present in the moment as I drive. I feel the steering wheel under my hands and notice how the car responds to slight movements. I notice how my body feels: are my muscles tense? did I have enough breakfast? am I thirsty? am I breathing calmly and deeply? I note thoughts and feelings as they occur. With mindfulness practice, I become more aware of the changing seasons and weather: what wildflowers are blooming? what color is the sky? what animals are about? My morning commute becomes rich with awareness as I am reminded each day just how amazing this world is.
The best thing is that even when I slide down the mindless path (and find myself gazing outside while watching a soccer game), I can always start again and return to mindfulness in the next moment.