I was meditating the other day, a practice I’ve had fairly consistently for ten or twelve years now. And I was severely distracted.
Phones, work schedules, and busy lives usually take all the blame as distractions. Like this picture a friend of mine sent me of a family at dinner (no talking to each other, everyone on their phones/iPads)…
But the biggest culprit is really our busy minds, which take any opportunity we give them to carry us off into the future, into memories, into imagination and the like. Even without a single thing to do, locked in a distraction-free room for a day, it seems as though most of the time would be spent distracted anyway.
I asked myself why I was so easily distracted in that moment, and the answer that appeared was this:
I didn’t feel any urgency or immediacy about that moment. That present moment was just a single, seemingly trivial moment amidst an almost endless number of moments. The various thoughts and imaginations that carried me off all had an unexamined feeling of urgency and importance compared with that present moment experience.
And another thought arose… what if there weren’t a seemingly endless number of moments left to live? What if today was my last day to live? How would I approach that moment differently?
In that moment, a new practice was born. I decided I wanted to live a full day like it was my last and find out. Buuuuut… I waited a day to start it.
(I waited a day because I took a day to prep myself for my day of living life as if it were my last day. Then I went for it.)
Of course, pretty much everyone’s heard this notion before. “Live every day like it’s your last!” people say. There are songs written about it. It’s one of those pieces of ordinary wisdom people dole out frequently but nobody follows. And for good reason. I don’t really buy it anyway, at least not the way most people mean it. Usually it’s said in a spirit of throwing caution to the wind. Eat the extra piece of cake. Jump out of the airplane. Live a little, you lame-o.
But “every day” can’t be about bucket lists. Some can. But most days are going to be ordinary. Even an extraordinary life is in large part ordinary for the person living it.
So for me, this experiment had nothing to do with bucket lists. It was about something much simpler. It was about showing up for my ordinary life more fully.
It turns out it was harder than expected to get the experiment right. I knew it was going to be important to really step into it fully, to almost trick myself into believing it actually was my last day to be alive if I was going to get as much as possible out of the experience. But if I really knew it was my last day, I might be spending time calling all sorts of people and saying goodbye and that sort of thing. So I decided I would live an ordinary day as if it was my last, but without anyone else knowing it was my last day.
I chose to do it on a day off from work spent with my family. Here’s what happened.
I found it difficult to follow through at first. I was continually catching myself in the act of doing something focused on the future… silly stuff, like adding something to the grocery list for a trip that wouldn’t happen for a few days. There were a ton of these moments, and each time I noticed, I asked myself, would I do this if it were my last day? If the answer was no, I tried to be unsparing about it. I didn’t always get it right, but I tried. That helped me step into it more fully and “believe it” more deeply.
As the day went on, it started to feel more real and I began to settle into it. That’s when the good stuff started to happen. I don’t want to overhype it, but I also want to convey the richness of it.
At its simplest, I just enjoyed everyone I was with so much on this day. It wasn’t just people… everything was so much more interesting because I was paying attention to it so much more. Even really ordinary stuff like washing my hands—I enjoyed how cool the feeling is to have running water pass over my hands. I miss that all the time. Most days I’m in a rush, but I wasn’t on this day, and so even that was a rich experience.
But with people, it was that much more noticeable. I was so much more mindful than I usually am. I paid attention to people so much more fully and it was as if I was seeing them for the first time. It was this strange juxtaposition of feeling like I hardly knew them, yet at the same time knew them intimately well. It was extraordinarily fresh.
I played hours of games with my son, the same ones that sometimes bore me to tears, and just watched his energy and excitement and all the youthful goodness wrapped up into that ball of little person energy.
I didn’t have much interest in getting frustrated or losing patience. I was noticeably absent of anxiety. I was much more grateful than most days.
I wasn’t perfect of course. This little experiment had its flaws, its ups and downs. It didn’t turn me into a saint. But it was valuable, even eye-opening at times—enough so that I wholeheartedly recommend it, which I wouldn’t do if I didn’t think it was really worth it.
I know most people hate to even think about dying. Most of us are so scared of it that we suppress the very thought of it and ignore the reality of it… like it will only happen to other people but not to us.
But I think that makes us more prone to living like we have all the time in the world. And as soon as we do that, it’s so much easier to fill that time with unimportant things, to squander it, to miss much of it lost in thought or in petty nonsense, and to miss out on the opportunity to be present, attentive, open and receptive.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone. But I wasn’t on this day without future. And the reward was a day filled mostly with a sense of immediacy and fullness. I’ll probably do it again sometime.