The nature of human life in the 21st century is hustle and bustle, moving quickly from one obligation to the next—scribbling a note to free up some brain-space, driving over the speed limit to save precious seconds, or taking two stairs at a time to get to the destination milliseconds sooner. The push for more, faster, “better” is everywhere. If you aren’t rushing about, you might miss something, the next big opportunity.
This racing life is contrary to human nature and is the cause of a lot of societal ills. Burnout, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness are all prevalent and rising (this study by meQuilibrium is one of the dozens showing similar results), and the false promise of more is among the primary causes. One of the most important lessons in life is so simple, but incredibly challenging: stop. Stop doing what you’re doing. Stop, for even thirty seconds, and consider what you’re doing, where your mind is, and the distance between your mind and your body.
This is the basic premise of mindfulness, but this foundational wisdom is found in many philosophies and religions. The Hebrew Bible is littered with poetic references to stillness (arguably the most famous being Psalms 46:10); Taoist Lao Tzu said “Attain utmost emptiness. Abide in steadfast stillness” (Tao Te Ching, Chapter 16); the Stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius wrote “There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind… So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself” (Meditations 4.3).
The ubiquity of the concept demonstrates its importance. Mindfulness is about bringing your mind and body together, in the present moment, without judgement. You may notice the disconnect at first and, even as you read this treatise, you may find your mind drifting to the past or the future. Through mindfulness, one can remember and relearn the connection between mind and body, leave the past behind, and understand that the future hasn’t happened yet.
There are a host of techniques that can increase mindfulness, including formal and informal practices. Upon reflecting about mindfulness in my own life, I realized that one of the techniques that I have used frequently and instinctively is watching the clouds. The natural formations, finding shapes, even just noticing the motion without labels. How they freely float in the sky, thousands of feet above us but plainly in sight. Here for now but gone in an instant. The transience of clouds is connected to the transience of life; no two moments are the same. The forerunner of Stoicism, Heraclitus, captured this notion beautifully: “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man.”
Not only is this a lesson in transience and a connection with self, but also a way to disconnect from the busyness and noise around you. Simply being in this present and fleeting moment. There is something to putting your head in the clouds, or being awed by the distance and grandeur of the sky. It is a powerful reminder of how small things down here truly are and a retreat from the fast-paced, high-impact game of life.
Edited by Jeremy Harr and Abigail McKay Cherry