Wake up to the World Around You (Guiding Principles of Slowing, #2)

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

There is a lot of talk these days about being “woke” or “enlightened” or “evolved,” as if those are states of being that some elite few exist in, while the rest of us carry on as primitive creatures. And while I may be tempted to fall into this line of thinking from time to time, I want to be clear from the outset that that is not what I am referring to when I talk about our second guiding principle of slowing: Wake up to the world around you. “Waking up,” in this case, is not something that is done once as an entry ticket into a gnostic realm. It is something that is done again and again and again, in the same way that every night we go to sleep and every morning we must wake up again.

What does it mean, exactly, to “wake up to the world around you”? To put it simply, it means to pay attention to the moment you are currently inhabiting. It involves engaging all of your senses as you take in your surroundings, as well as noticing what’s going on inside of you. It’s not something you can do for every minute of every day. Sometimes you need to get lost in a work project, or a conversation. But if you make a point to “wake up” several times a day, you will find it becomes easier and easier to bring your whole self to your other encounters and experiences throughout the day.

Pay attention to the moment you are currently inhabiting – this is what it means to “wake up.”

Try this exercise with me:

Wherever you are right now, look around. What do you see? Observe your surroundings until you see something you’ve never noticed before.

What do you hear? Close your eyes and try to identify as many sounds as possible.

Are you eating or drinking anything? Take a small bite or sip and try to identify the flavors.

What other senses can you engage? Take a deep breath and notice the aroma of your environment. Touch the chair you’re sitting in, or the table in front of you, or the clothes you’re wearing. Find at least three different textures and slowly run your fingers across them.

Now close your eyes and take four slow, deep breaths.

What are you feeling in your body? From your head to your toes, think through each section of your body and see what you notice.

What are you feeling emotionally? Try to name at least one emotion, if not more.

What thoughts are going through your head? Sit still and close your eyes for a moment and see what comes to mind.

Now take three slow, deep breaths.

Grab a pen and paper and try to write 5 – 10 things you’re grateful for in this moment.

Why is it important to practice “waking up?”

As we learn to “wake up” to the present moment, three important things will happen. First, we will begin to experience deeper intimacy in relationships. This is because it is impossible to genuinely connect with another human being when we are not present with them. When we are thinking about what’s coming next, or what we’re going to say, or when we’re preoccupied with unprocessed emotions in our subconscious, we cannot truly see the person sitting in front of us. Nor can we be seen for who we are. When we live this way, we feel perpetually isolated and empty. But when we can inhabit each moment, our relationships will flourish.

The second thing you will start to notice is an increase in wonder, delight, and gratitude. In the first post of this series, I made the claim that infinite resources of love and joy are available to us in each and every moment. But how do we access those resources? We wake up to the present moment. We pause and ask ourselves, “What is the gift of this moment?” and we expect an answer. When we do this, we learn to delight in things we never noticed before. And as we cultivate a sense of wonder and delight, we find that joy and love are not far behind.

Finally, the more we “wake up,” the more our lived existence will be connected to our values and purpose. When we sleepwalk through life, we end up drifting farther and farther from our deeply held convictions. We will begin to feel this dissonance as anxiety, depression, exhaustion, and/or a general dissatisfaction with life, but we will be unable to identify the source of the problem. But when we are paying attention, we notice the crucial moments where small decisions “for” or “against” something change our trajectory. We notice and we make the decision that aligns with who we want to be.

When we sleepwalk through life, we end up drifting farther and farther from our deeply held convictions…But when we are paying attention, we notice the crucial moments where small decisions “for” or “against” something change our trajectory.

The stages of “waking up”

There are three stages to this process of “waking up”:

  1. Observation – In the observation stage, we are simply noticing what is going on inside and around us. Engage all of your senses. Ask questions like: What do I notice? What am I aware of? What am I feeling? What thoughts are going through my head? What’s happening in my environment? What’s going on in my body? What do I see/hear/smell around me?
  2. Appreciation – In the appreciation stage, we move beyond neutral observation to noticing what is good and beautiful in the present moment. Ask questions like: What am I grateful for in this moment? What feels like a gift? What opportunities are before me?
  3. Thoughtfulness – Once we have noticed our surroundings and experienced gratitude for the present moment, we are able to turn our attention to important questions of life purpose and trajectory: What do I want to be doing right now? Who do I want to be? What is true for me?

Two applications for wakeful living

As you learn to “wake up” to the present moment, you will start to notice subtle shifts in your mood and attitude. These shifts may seem trivial in the moment, but over time they have enormous consequences on the trajectory of our lives. If we can learn to notice these shifts, we can course correct in real time, instead of spending years walking a destructive path before realizing the damage we’ve done to ourselves and our loved ones.

Noticing the “ick” feeling in interpersonal relationships

You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach after an interaction with someone that didn’t go so well? Maybe you said something you wish you hadn’t, or you maybe you kept silent when you wish you’d spoken up. Or maybe the other person said or did something that was hurtful, and you didn’t know how to address it. Whatever happened, the feeling is very uncomfortable and we often try to ignore it or convince ourselves that it wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes, we fail to notice it at all.

But the feelings we ignore or “don’t notice” are the most dangerous kind. This is because ignoring feelings doesn’t make them disappear, it simply buries them in our subconscious where they serve to destroy our relationships from the inside out. Think about relationships that have become distant over the years. Sometimes there is an obvious reason for this drifting apart – e.g. a season of life ends, you move across the country – but sometimes it “just seemed to happen” and you can’t say exactly why. But people don’t just “grow apart.” We only say that when we weren’t paying attention. There’s a good chance that one or both of you was feeling some interpersonal angst and either didn’t notice it, or didn’t want to address it.

Every day we have interactions with people we love that either bring us closer together, or put a wedge between us. If we’re paying attention, we can address those wedges as they arise, and prevent them from growing into an insurmountable wall. If we’re not paying attention, it will get easier and easier to not have that important conversation, and to invest our energies elsewhere, and then realize 10 years down the road that our relationship withered and died from neglect.

Noticing when relaxing activities become numbing

Determining whether the way we’re spending our time is helping or hurting us is a matter of discernment, and generally we can’t make blanket statements about whether or not a particular activity is inherently “good” or “bad.” For example, there’s nothing wrong with watching a TV show at the end of the day to unwind. But once we begin a potentially addictive activity, we are at risk of continuing it even after it stops benefitting us. Maybe you’ve noticed that when you start the TV show it feels good, but that 3 or 4 hours later you feel like crap. But did you notice the moment when it shifted? I guarantee you there was a specific moment when hitting “next episode” started to feel gross instead of satisfying. For me, this happens pretty predictably after 3 episodes of a 20 minute sitcom. Your tolerance may be higher or lower, but that is not the point. The point is, are you paying close enough attention to recognize when you’ve begun to harm yourself? This principle doesn’t just apply to Netflix binging, of course; it applies to any kind of consumption. At what point does alcohol shift from enjoyment to impairment? How do different foods impact the way you feel? How much sleep do you need to feel rested, and at what point does sleeping in start to make you feel worse? When does social media meet a real need, and when does it start causing anxiety, irritability, or lethargy? These are all questions that can only be answered when we are paying attention.

Once you learn to notice the shift, you will be able to engage in relaxing activities for a healthy amount of time, and will be able to move on to something else when it stops being healthy. This will not only increase your overall sense of well-being, but will also give you back hours of your life. Imagine you had 2-3 extra hours in your day – what would you do with them?

Conclusion

Our culture is geared toward the next thing – the next gadget or experience, the next job or relationship, the next life stage or credential. But the longing in your heart will not be satisfied in another time and place if it will not be satisfied in the here and now. Jesus said it this way: “The kingdom of heaven is here, it is within you.” Open up your eyes and your ears and take it in. Wake up to this moment, and you will find that what you are looking for has been here all along.

Practice Exercises

Exercise #1 “Be conscious in your consumption”

The next time you are consuming something (e.g. food, media), try to notice the moment when your consumption shifts from relaxing or nourishing to numbing or compulsive. Noticing this moment requires consuming more slowly, and pausing at regular intervals to ask yourself reflective questions, like: How am I feeling right now? How is this activity impacting me? Is it giving me life? Compared to before I started this activity, am I more or less able to access my true self?  I’m not suggesting that you must constantly be in analysis mode and never simply enjoying the activity. But before you begin, think about how to trigger reflection at appropriate intervals. For example, if you are watching a TV show, between episodes might be a good time to pause and reflect. If it’s food or alcohol, maybe you can reflect after you’ve consumed a certain amount.

Once you determine that the current activity is no longer serving you, ask yourself: “What do I need in this moment?” Be still until a clear answer emerges. Maybe you need rest, or fresh air, or human connection. Whatever it is, think about what you could do to meet that need in a healthy way.

Exercise # 2 “Wake up to the present moment” (repeated from the intro)

Wherever you are right now, look around. What do you see? Observe your surroundings until you see something you’ve never noticed before.

What do you hear? Close your eyes and try to identify as many sounds as possible.

Are you eating or drinking anything? Take a small bite or sip and try to identify the flavors.

What other senses can you engage? Take a deep breath and notice the aroma of your environment. Touch the chair you’re sitting in, or the table in front of you, or the clothes you’re wearing. Find at least three different textures and slowly run your fingers across them.

Now close your eyes and take four slow, deep breaths.

What are you feeling in your body? From your head to your toes, think through each section of your body and see what you notice.

What are you feeling emotionally? Try to name at least one emotion, if not more.

What thoughts are going through your head? Sit still and close your eyes for a moment and see what comes to mind.

Now take three slow, deep breaths.

Grab a pen and paper and try to write 5 – 10 things you’re grateful for in this moment.

Reflection Questions

  1. How would you assess your current level of self-awareness? What about gratitude? Joy? What connections do see between these things?
  2. What do you want to pay more attention to?
  3. What’s one concrete step you can take this week that would help “wake you up” to your surroundings?

This is Part 3 in a series on “Slowing.” Find part 1, “Slowing: An Antidote to Consumerism,” here. And part 2, “Do One Thing at a Time,” here.

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