I’m not going to be so melodramatic as to say my time is running out, but every look in the mirror tells me I’m entering the latter part of my life. I’ve been flirting with a major dermatological intervention. But no laser can change the fact that my wonderful 27-year marriage has flashed by in about 10 minutes or that I know a disturbing number of people my age with wonky knees, hips or backs (including me). The years I’ve lived are not gone. They’re all over my face and body. Furthermore, my life experiences, most of which I’ve forgotten, are still humming in my nervous system, affecting my perception of every new experience. When I hear the next-to-last Beethoven piano sonata, I hear it as the dozens of different women I was when I heard the piece before, and before, and before. My whole life flashes before my ears.
So my time is running out, because that’s what time does. And I’m still (as I’ve been for decades) obsessed with trying to be present for my own life, even though that’s like trying to catch the current of a river with your hands as it carries you downstream, toward the falls.
As time pushes me relentlessly onward, I skitter around like a cat in a glass-bottomed boat: Something is holding me up, but I’m damned if I can figure out what it is or get a foothold. In this state of intermittent existential terror, I rush and rush to get things done. But I already know—though I keep forgetting—that the way to stop being overwhelmed by the flow of time is to step outside it, and that one of the simplest, most practical ways to do this is through mindfulness meditation, or vipassana. I’m returning to this practice after a lapse of some years. Now I remember why I need it.
When I was younger, I thought the goal of meditation was to reach a state of bliss, an accomplishment that would entitle me to some sort of spiritual bragging rights. As with so many of my activities back then, I was focused on achieving something, getting somewhere. But I’ve come to realize that achievement for its own sake is totally beside the point. Life’s real work is consciousness—being here and knowing it. Without consciousness, the days and years slide by without me. But if I can wake myself up at least part of the time, I become the author of my own delight. I get to feel the sum of my experience humming inside me. And now’s the time to feel it, because someday I’m going to forget it all. There’s an ocean at the end of that river.
Mindfulness meditation trains you to be aware of the richness of your own life. Though it leaves you calm and refreshed, its primary purpose is not to relax you. Rather, it’s a daily practice—the oldest Buddhist meditation practice, in fact—that teaches you the nature of your own reality, moment by moment. (By the way, some of that reality is not pretty. Vipassana puts you in touch with a lot of stuff you don’t want to know but actually need to know.) My favorite meditation guide is a slim, sublimely lucid book called Mindfulness in Plain English, by the Buddhist monk Bhante Henepola Gunaratana. Every time I pick up this volume, I remember how I want to be in the world. Quieter. Kinder to myself and others. Unafraid of seeing what’s right in front of me.
Vipassana is at once the easiest and hardest activity there is: You sit quietly, observing each in-breath and out-breath, gently pulling your mind back to attention when it starts wandering elsewhere. And boy, does it wander. When I sit down to meditate now, my consciousness leaps wildly between the past and the future, reliving old hurts, rehearsing new fears. It’s as if I would rather be anywhere but here and now—and that, of course, is the first big thing you learn from meditating.