When are the moments you really remember? Clearly remember, that is, with cellophane clarity and sharp-edged brilliance? For me – it’s either been when something was extraordinarily good, when something was extraordinarily bad, or when I was jolted hyper-awake, shaken into the present.
The first two cannot be engineered. We have to stand thigh-high in the rushing river and wait for whatever life floats past us. But the 3rd — awareness — can be cultivated. There’s a lot of advice on how to do this through mindfulness, meditation, breathing techniques or pranayama, which is all well and good, but suuuuuuper time-consuming (and potentially tedious). The short cut method to waking up to the present moment is to goad the universe into slapping you upside the head.
Now I try not to think of the universe as this frenemy that exists nearly exclusively to guide self-important white women aged 22-48 with subtle hints on whether to take calcium supplements or cancel cable. For example, it’s tempting to read two recent inquiries into my age as a sign from the universe to get serious about moisturizing. But like Jesus’ face on the toast, many interpretations are possible. And the universe is a busy lady. It also is true, however, that when I lose touch with myself, when the wheels come spinning off in my go-go-go modus operandi, the universe does have a funny way of presenting a well-timed face plant, designed to make me go from 90 miles per hour to a dead stop.
This happens bimonthly, sometimes weekly, in frequent little trips that catch me up short and make me laugh at how off center I have become. In short, they wake me up. Maybe the most illustrative example happened my senior year of college, running back to my room from the computer lab (when computer labs existed!) in the middle of the night. At the time, I was earnestly endeavoring to run off several wheels at once, finishing a second major I had added at the last minute, writing my thesis, working at a coffee shop and spending time with friends, all too aware of my fleeting remaining time on campus. And not surprisingly, there was some serious lack of self-care along the basic lines of eating and sleeping in the process. That year I lived on the “Lawn” at the University of Virginia, a rectangular quad that Thomas Jefferson had gently tiered from end to end to give the optical illusion of a flat horizon line. Running from the computer lab to my Lawn room meant cutting a diagonal across the Lawn – and in my haste, and the 2 a.m. total darkness, I had forgotten that about every 40 feet, the ground abruptly rose straight upward by three and a half feet.
I’m not sure it’s possible to impart just how surprising it is to be upright, vertical and running in the dark, then immediately come to a full stop, still standing, with a mouthful of dirt – without any visual heads up.
It’s very surprising.
I stood there (lay there?) leaning against the swell of the lower tier, still clutching my thesis manuscript to my wildly beating heart, eyeball to eyeball with the Rotunda at the far head of the Lawn and a wink of a crescent moon beyond. Everything was still. I rolled onto my back, spit out the grass and said, aloud, “Okay. I’m listening. What??”
Every face-to-ground episode since has been just an echo of this one. And each has been equally useful in helping me to slow down, wake up to the present moment, be aware of the life I am living.
I suppose it’s technically possible to gain that sense of clarity and aliveness by working to cultivate awareness within your self, logging in hour after tedious hour of meditation or silence or contemplative prayer. But why waste your own time, like a sucker, when you could prod the universe into delivering awareness with Task-Rabbit efficiency to your doorstep? The abrupt stop with a mouthful of Bermuda grass is fast, efficient and effective as an on-the-go awareness delivery mechanism. It really can be that easy. So how do you achieve it without having to read any more Pema Chodron or Thich Nhat Hahn or listen to any more Super Soul Sundays on Sirius XM?
Friend, I’m glad you asked. In 40 years of intensive field research and empirical study, I have distilled below the five best practices to achieving your own vertical face plant – and accompanying turf-eating enlightenment. I’ve tried them all exhaustively and I can attest — whether you adopt these methods individually or collectively, sequentially or by your own design — you’re sure to have the universe banging down your door, begging you wake the fuck up.
- Move rapidly, quickly everywhere. Do not do this for cardio or pleasure. Rush to hurry up and get somewhere quicker or get something over with faster. If the left lane is slower than the right, shift to the right lane. Scold the person in the passenger seat who reminds you you are about to turn left! Run from your car to the entrance of the grocery store. If someone speaks to you at the store, make your eyes darty and your face twitchy, assessing your exits. Respond to a backlog of texts while in the loo, or while a loved one is talking. Finish people’s sentences for them; they will appreciate you as a helpful human thesaurus and you will gain at least 4 seconds back. Hurry!
- Create, feed and maintain an outsized sense of yourself and your own capabilities. Plan a to-do list with this version of yourself in mind, taking care to add in line items like “incentivize kids to excel at math” and “better pursue passions.” Make sure you also build in expectations to make a difference in community activism, make more money, cook more organic food because it appears your daughter is starting to go through puberty at age 9, and deal with your own increasingly problematic muffin top. On each daily To-Do list, it helps to also draw a small box at the end of each line item that could be crossed off – or not – if accomplished. A sense of personal failure can greatly expedite the universe’s bitch slap.
- Win as many arguments in your head as possible. Think of it as a whetstone, or weightlifting bench, for your minimal free time, sharpening and strengthening your ability to enact step #2. Suggested mental adversaries include: your neighbors with leaf blowers, fellow classroom parents who bring elaborately crafted treats to school, and Fox News anchors. Make sure to remind all fictional opponents of your importance and limited time. Find a way to bring up politics. Take things personally. Spend inordinate amounts of time imagining yourself more Tina Fey than Liz Lemon, mouthing your favorite lines in the car or walking to work. Using a bathroom mirror, develop a look that suggests a rich inner life and knowing wisdom, without smirking. Use all you learned about asking questions and leaning in with curiosity to manipulate your debater into thinking you are more grown up … then spike the ball like Kerry Walsh Jennings. Practice whirling on one heel. Realize a two-inch square heeled pump has the best visual impact with least risk.
- Insist on volume in your life. Do not let silence in, even for a minute, even at a red light. If you do, make sure it’s the sulky kind (see step #3), the noisy silence of resentment and self-recrimination. Make sure that any quiet moment finds an interior monologue to continue the adage “sound imposes a narrative on you, and it’s always someone else’s narrative.” Remember Louis CK’s bit on Conan about our urgent itch to distract ourselves from feelings of sadness and isolation. Then promptly forget it. At all costs, resist the fertile silence of awareness, pasturing the soul, calling up the difficult views of ourselves, watering new thoughts. This is not a bad thing – it’s just a different method, and one that will likely leave you confused and distracted at best, lost at worst. Dropping into a deep and reflective, observant silence is like a bucket down the well – dipping down within us to the place that is unbroken, unrushed, unseparated from the Divine. The trouble is – you do not know, you cannot know, how deep that well is, and what obstructions lie within. Why risk plumbing something that might be labrithine when there is another way? Turn up the dial, text a friend during a nature walk in autumn, keep talking – and let the universe put the brakes on for you.
- Open as many browser windows as possible at once – literally and figuratively. Multi-tasking is for effective winners, single-tasking is for purist losers. The more you open, the more you toggle between, the quicker your toggling frequency – the greater your impressiveness, the quicker the earth rises up to backhand you into muted wonder and alertness. As a bonus, along the way, you will be externally valued/hated by your peers, bosses, fellow parents and Pinterest followers for your seeming ability to juggle everything – few of whom will see you crying in your car. Mention that you want to write the antithetical book to Lean In and call it Recline – then laugh quickly and say “Just Kidding!” Take the multiple-open-windows idea into the external world, and try to know approximately 3% about everything and then expound on any subject to anyone who will listen, a condition I’ve self-diagnosed as “post-modern asshole.” Run a mental or verbal commentary on restaurant waiters, local water policies, gendered toys, etc. as though you were the editorial board of The New York Times. Keep toggling.
This is foolproof, folks. No gimmicks. And I can promise you, your own three-and-a-half feet of momentum-stopping, awareness-provoking and memorable wall of sod awaits. Enjoy!