The Art of Enjoying Life
The author of 'Comfort' examines what it takes for people to wake up and be fully alive every day.
Waiting for a tour company bus at a hotel in Bath, England, I met a young travel writer from California. I was traveling alone and she was with her ninety-year-old grandmother. The bus arrived late, with only one seat left for the three of us. Needless to say, her grandmother got the place on the bus, and the writer and I went off in search of the train station. Later, on the train, we talked about her travel-writing work in France. “My favorite word in French,” she said, “is parfait—‘perfect.’ ” In France, she said, people seem to find it easier to appreciate and enjoy the moment — things can seem perfect. In American English, however, perfect presents an impossible standard to live up to.
I agreed. In a restless country like the United States, we look on perfect as the impossible future to work toward. The present moment is beside the point. We always look ahead to the betterpaying job, the bigger house, a place to live with more pleasant weather. Nothing should stay the same; it must improve. If most of us arrived at some moment that began to feel perfect — a beautiful day, a fantastic job, a magnificent work of art — we would probably begin to look for ways to enhance it. This does many good things for us as a culture, in terms of productivity and innovation. But, as my train companion pointed out, it makes it that much harder to really be happy in the present moment. It makes it harder than ever to just be comfortable.
We might benefit from the Buddhist spiritual practice of mindfulness. This means essentially a discipline of heightened awareness in whatever one does — eating, walking, talking with a friend, working, waiting for the bus. Behind this lies the assumption that much of the time we live an unexamined and automatic life. We do not really know or appreciate what we are doing. We stuff down our food, half listen to the people we encounter, mindlessly groom our amazing bodies, pass by miles of natural wonders without any of them registering on our personal radar. The beautiful and the fascinating surround us, but we do not see them. Once I attended a retreat where, as a meditation exercise, I was instructed to watch insects for half an hour. Initially I dreaded the potential boredom of the exercise, but before many minutes had passed I was captivated. That afternoon I saw butterflies, moths, ants moving large burdens, beetles I could not identify. It was like gaining unexpected entrance to a
secret world. Buddhist mindfulness invites all seekers to slow down and take a look, to listen, to notice. It is an invitation to enjoy ourselves more in every moment.