One bright spring day, I sat in my backyard, reclining in a lawn chair. My goal was to do something that seemed simple but was surprisingly hard: to be present and perceive the world around me.
As I sat in the backyard, I tried to avoid becoming lost in my thoughts and to focus on the world around me.
I was sitting in a backyard, but I realized I was not fully seeing that backyard. I looked around at the stones of the patio where I sat, at the trees with light green spring leaves and rough-textured bark, at the vines that curled up along thick wooden posts and across a pergola above the deck.
I was sitting in a chair, but I realized that I was not aware of the feeling of my body. I tried to notice the feeling of being in a body and sitting in a chair, of the rise and fall of my breath, the sensation of the gently moving air on my skin, and other minute physical sensations.
I paid attention to the sounds around me. There was a small pond with a trickling waterfall, a soft and continual gurgle of water flowing over rock. Birds made music overhead. Squirrels clambered up the trees with a chittering sound. The breeze made a soft noise and carried with it the city sounds from a distance, the low hum of cars on a highway or some construction machines working.
It required a continual effort to perceive all these things. At first it was a struggle, like trying to juggle many balls at the same time – seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling…it didn’t seem I was getting it right.
But then a new sort of feeling began to emerge. Rather than trying to mentally focus on each of these different perceptions, I found myself just being “open” to them without trying to think about it. It suddenly felt very natural to simply be aware of the world around me, with this sensation of stillness and peace surrounding me.
My perception felt heightened. The world suddenly seemed so vivid and real, as if I was a small child seeing it for the first time. I was hit with a sudden amazement at the reality of being alive and in a physical world.
I had everything I needed just by being present in that moment. It was peaceful but also an energetic and alert feeling and a joyful one. I took a great delight in the lovely natural environment I was in. Trees, birds, vines, and water all had a magical quality.
At the same time as I had been trying to observe the environment around me, I had also been making an effort to observe within myself, and I noticed a continual intrusion of thoughts and images in my mind.
My thoughts were constantly commenting, judging, analyzing, and making associations with everything around me. The thoughts appeared so subtly – for example, upon looking at a tree, my mind could make a comment relating that perception to something else, then that thought would spawn another, and the thoughts would turn into mental images or daydreams, until I was completely enmeshed in the world in my mind, relatively oblivious to the world around me.
Again and again this process happened, and I had to break myself out of that mental noise and resume my efforts to simply perceive. In some cases I got better at noticing those thoughts just as they appeared, and instead of getting caught up in them, I could get rid of them and refocus on the practice of awareness and self-observation.
I also noticed an interplay between thoughts and emotions. I became aware of underlying feelings that tended to linger in the area around my chest and stomach, and as I got deeper into the practice I found I could break free of them, leaving me feeling much lighter.
The emotions tended to trigger thoughts and likewise the thoughts could trigger emotions – so for example, thinking of a situation that provoked anxiety created a corresponding emotional state, and that state could linger long after the thought had passed and could then continue to generate additional thoughts. I had read about this in Belsebuub’s course on self-knowledge, and I was amazed to see it happening right before my eyes, as if I was an observer within my own psyche rather than totally absorbed in those thoughts and feelings as I usually was.
I realized that I normally perceived my environment through a kind of subconscious filter. The physical world was typically just a vague background overlaid by a web of thoughts and daydreams. It was a kind of psychological sleep. My experience being aware felt like being truly awake, and it was a completely different way of perceiving the world.
In the midst of this new experience, without realizing it, I stopped putting the same level of effort into being aware and instead became lost in thought about how amazing the experience was. Before I knew it, that feeling of heightened perception had left – I had been caught by a trick of the mind.
I carried on with my day, still making efforts to be aware and to observe my internal world. It still felt like a great effort, and I wasn’t able to recapture that intense sense of consciousness I had before.
Nonetheless, I had a renewed sense of focus and determination to apply these techniques consistently. I felt I’d been given a glimpse of a different way to experience life – a glimpse of what was psychologically possible. I had discovered a source of peace and happiness within myself, which required nothing aside from my effort to access it. It was tremendously exciting.
The path forward was not quite as mysterious as before.