I was 18 years old when I felt real contentment for the first time that I can recall. At the time, I was a freshman in college—ego-driven, competitive and hell-bent on making a huge mark on the world.
As is so often the case with perspective-shifting epiphanies—especially ones that occur in college dorms—there are mushrooms involved in this story. With psilocybin lighting up my brain cells, I discovered that true happiness didn’t come from achieving anything, acquiring anything, proving myself to anyone or adding anything to my sense of identity. It came from letting those things drop and feeling happy just to Be.
As I explained to my roommate at the time, “I usually see life as something to be mastered or figured out, like a math problem or something. Well, guess what? It turns out there is no problem.”
That Was Now; This Is Still Now
Of course, for most people with jobs to go to, kids to raise, and cars to drive, it isn’t feasible to take strong doses of mushrooms all the time, and if we did, we probably wouldn’t get the results we wanted, anyway. Psychedelics can offer a deep, rich taste of liberation, but to find some of that richness in daily life, we’re probably going to need a “practice”—and I use that word loosely, because it implies working toward some kind of future goal, when the whole point is to find contentment right where you are.
So far, the best method I’ve found for cultivating this state of consciousness is mindfulness: staying attentive to whatever is going on in the present moment, as opposed to the endless birthday clown antics of the mind. This doesn’t come naturally to me, because my monkey mind is a special kind of crazy, but after many years of steady practice, I’ve gotten better at it. Here are a few hacks I’ve learned along the way.
Getting Here from There
If chanting mantras, lighting incense or sitting in the lotus position helps you to focus on the now, go for it. My mindfulness practice has nothing to do with any of that stuff. For me, it all comes down to one word: STOP.
Quit thinking about the future; let go of memories from the past. Stop, look and listen. Don’t create, just experience things exactly as they are. Feel the floor under your feet; hear the hum of the fridge; notice the coming-and-going of your breath. If you begin wandering off into thought—and you will—then STOP again. Return your attention to what is actually happening, as opposed to the imaginary.
Yes, it’s really that easy. The thought that being present is difficult might just be the single greatest barrier to being present in the first place. This needn’t be hard work. You can start by keeping your awareness on the now for just a second or two at a time. The more often you do this, the longer you’ll be able to stay focused without feeling like you’re straining.
Read more: Healing with Psilocybin
At times when the mind is extremely active and mindfulness isn’t coming easily, it can be helpful to pretend you have amnesia. View the world around you from the perspective of someone whose memory has been wiped clean: You have no idea who you are, what your backstory is or what town you’re in.
Taking this a step further, you can look at everyday items as though you’ve never seen them before. If you’re looking at a tree, pretend it’s the first time you’ve seen such a thing and you’ve never heard the word “tree.” Examine its shape, its colors, the shadows it casts. Do this with everything around you: animals, cars, clouds, buildings, dishes, toothpaste … anything.
Wake Up and Really Smell the Mud
The rewards of all this have been huge for me. Maybe for the first time ever, I’m consistently happy. It’s not always the overjoyed, kid-in-a bounce-house kind of happy, but I’m enthusiastic about being alive. That’s no small thing to be able to say at a time when there’s a plague ravaging our world and humanity is doing a drunken walk of shame toward oblivion.
A big part of what’s keeping me in a positive frame of mind is a newfound appreciation for the so-called little things in life. The momentary rush of ego-based achievement just can’t compare with the stupidly happy feeling I get when I give my full focus to the delicious salad I’m eating. The fresh tomatoes, the ripe avocado slices with their vibrant green hue—it turns out, these little things aren’t all that little. They’re what life is all about. The happiness you’re seeking is right there in that salad you’ve barely been tasting while you were lost in some fantasy about getting enlightened or becoming mayor. Again and again, we chase a carrot on a stick, barely noticing that there are already plenty of fresh carrots in that salad in front of us.
Silencing the Inner Critic
Left unchecked, the mind has a nasty way of attacking itself. It just loves to turn regrets, resentments, self-doubt and painful memories into a big stir fry of ugliness. It’s like having your own personal Fox News, where selective editing and outright fabrication are used to portray you in the worst light possible.
Or maybe it’s just me. Either way, mindfulness has been a godsend for me in that area. Now when my internal DJ starts blasting Self-Hatred’s “Greatest Hits” at high volume, or when I catch myself having an imaginary argument with someone who insulted me 10 years ago, I can usually switch that off and turn my attention to the sound of my neighbor’s dog barking, or the feel of wind on my skin. When I turn off the thoughts that create unpleasant emotions, I return to the sense of peace that is the natural, default state of all living beings.
Here’s the thing: Most of the time, when you think you have a problem, it’s the thinking that’s the problem. Stop thinking, and you often find that, as I told my college roommate all those years ago, there is no problem at all.Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.