These days I live in the city, but I spent my childhood in a rural English village. It was quaint and quiet and rather lovely—the sort of place you’re desperate to leave when you’re young and full of fire, but begin to hanker for when you get a little older.
Back then, to get to the local school, I had to walk down a long, winding country lane, which had rolling fields on both sides. For half an hour each morning and the same coming home, I had beautiful scenery as far as the eye could see—streams, woodlands, horses frolicking in the fields.
But I never really saw any of this.
You see, this being the countryside, it was common for residents to walk their dogs down lanes such as this one. And this also being the eighties, before people began cleaning up after their dogs, there were quite a few areas on my journey where dogs had relieved themselves.
Now, because of this you had to keep your eyes on the ground pretty much constantly—that’s if you didn’t want to be that kid who walked dog poop into school, (or worse into a friend’s parent’s house, which I did once, but that’s another, much less allegorical, story).
So there I was each morning, eyes on the path, making sure I didn’t step on anything unpleasant, ignoring everything else. Closed off from all the beauty around me.
I’m glad to say that one day I had an epiphany. I realized that by being so cautious, I was actually missing out on experiencing the amazing backdrop to my journey.
On that day I realized that I wanted to walk to school present and mindful of the wonderful world around me.
I wanted to look around more and experience life in all its glory, not just worry about whether I stepped in poop.
So I did.
And yes, perhaps on occasion my shoe may have met with something nasty, but it made that walk so much more enjoyable. I remember the feelings of oneness and freedom it instilled in me to this day.
And really, that’s what being mindful and present is. It’s saying yes to life and noticing your surroundings. Fully.
It’s saying yes, I might step in something unpleasant, I might get hurt, I might feel silly, I might expose my vulnerabilities, but at least I get to experience every remarkable nuance and opportunity life has to offer too.
I’m also glad to say that this has been a lesson that I’ve carried through to my adult life.
Sure, there have been many times in the past when I’ve stepped in something nasty; jobs haven’t worked out, relationships have ended, people close to me have gone away in various different ways.
But throughout any downtime I’ve always tried to keep looking around me, to see the scenery, the bigger picture. Even if this is just catching myself in a negative tailspin, taking a deep breath, centring myself, and realizing that there’s lots to appreciate out there.
So what if you step in something? So what if you expose the real you and then get hurt? It’s all part of the rich tapestry of life, and you’ll deal with it, because you’re living your life completely.
In the present.
It’s not about pretending there is no dog poop on the path; it’s accepting that it’s there and striving forward anyway; it’s being mindful of what’s happening but enjoying life regardless.
So my advice today is to accept that you might “step in” something nasty, but do it anyway.
Remain mindful and engaged in the moment rather than focusing on what might happen.
Practice presence; give yourself to each experience fully.
When you become present in your interactions, you’ll start to enjoy every encounter so much more. You become involved in your life, fully.
You look around at the scenery and you really live.
What’s great is that presence is like a muscle that you can train. The more you work on it, the more present and mindful you’ll be.
So I’d urge you to spend a few minutes each day training your presence muscle.
There’s a few ways you can do this, but one of the simplest is to count your breaths for a few minutes each day. Taking a deep breath once in a while helps in so many ways.
All you need do is find a quiet place and slowly breathe in and out. And as you do, count the breaths. Ten in and ten out. It sounds simple but it takes a lot of focus at first to get to ten.
If your mind wanders, start again at one. Try and do ten uninterrupted, focused breaths.
I find this is also a great mini-meditation to use if I need to recalibrate and realign with myself, perhaps during an afternoon slump at work.
And of course, I still find myself, on occasion, watching the path too much. We’re all guilty, I think, of focusing inward—concentrating so much on what might happen that we miss what is happening.
I hope after reading this you might be able to catch yourself being too path-focused and try to live more fully in your current surroundings.
Begin to enjoy the beautiful scenery around you, and know that you are there, in the moment, enjoying every aspect of life, no matter what.
And if you stand on something nasty, know it’s only a small part of a much bigger picture that deserves to be experienced in all its splendor.
By Matt Richards