I learned about a beautiful approach to the skill of mindfulness that does not involve meditation through an On Being conversation with Ellen Langer. She is a social psychologist who defines mindfulness as “the simple act of actively noticing things.”
I really like this conception of mindfulness because it does not require any special training or meditation practice. It is something that is accessible to all of us. It also helps us understand what it means to “be in the moment” when so many of us have practiced being in our heads and thinking rather than truly noticing.
Last March I was on a trip for work in which I accidentally packed my phone in my carry-on luggage. Leaving from the airport at MSP, I had my coat on, but once I was in airport, I decided to pack the coat in order to keep my hands more free while in the airport. Immediately through security I realized I was missing a phone, and I searched frantically for it, fearing the disconnection of not having it with me for a trip to Mexico.
I typically use my phone to consume podcasts, read emails and occupy myself with other things make the trip pass by faster. One of my fears has always been getting bored. On long car trips with my family I used to pack a bag full of books, confident that would get me through the hours of travel.
This time though, I had no distractions to take with me on the trip. It seemed like the universe’ way to show me what I typically miss while I travel: interactions with actual people, and the many things I can learn when I notice, when I pay attention. What I first noticed was that so few people make eye contact with one another anymore while they are rushing through the airport. So many are looking down at the phones rather than engaging with people around them. I get this. I am an introvert, and contact with all these people can be a little overwhelming.
I sat myself down for a little people-watching, something I always enjoyed when young. It is a wonderful practice of noticing. One flight had just arrived, people were departing the gate, looking determined and hurrying along. An older gentleman in an old-fashioned cap was moving a little more slowly than some of the passengers. He looked around, feeling a bit lost perhaps, and overwhelmed at the number of people all gathered around the terminal, the passengers rushing to their next destination.\
As I noticed his bright blue eyes we made eye contact. I allowed my eyes to stay with his for a couple of moments, instead of averting them as we Minnesotans are politely taught to do. And of course I could not resist a smile for him, as I felt empathy for his search for connection, for people to simply notice he was there. I was rewarded by a smile by him as well. Other people looking down at their phones or preoccupied by other things on their travel had not noticed him, but I did, and he returned the acknowledgement.
During that flight I ended up having a marvelous conversation with a woman who was an author, just returning from a speaking tour. She told me she rarely talks with people on a plane, but she said there was something different about me. She decided not to put her headphones on (as usual) but to instead have a conversation. As it turns out, I found out she had been a speaker for an event attended by my massage therapist. It is a small world.
After that incident, in which I ended up feeling so peaceful and present without my phone, I resolved to spend more time in airports like this. Instead of looking down and disengaging with the people around me, I take time to make eye contact, to smile and to be present. Many people seem to find it startling when I make sustained eye contact. I notice many of them look away at first, and then look back. When they realize I am still looking at them and give them a smile, they often return the smile.
It is a small gesture, to notice the people around us. But I believe we have a deep hunger for connection as humans. We may think we get this by staying connected, by having our phone in hand and instant communication at the push of a button. But what is sacrificed by disconnecting with the people around us and directly in front of us?
I encourage you to do little experiments in noticing, at home, in the halls at work, in the airports when you travel. See what you discover. I promise you, it will be fascinating.