The World in a Grain of Sand

August 23, 2011 § 34 Comments

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“All this hurrying soon will be over. Only when we tarry do we touch the holy.”

Rainer Maria Rilke

It is perhaps one of the most absurd and paradoxical struggles we face as modern humans: the quest to be “in the moment” — a place we already are.

In the fast-paced age of technology, with the increasingly divided attention created by smartphones, we’re so pressed for time, apparently, we can’t even pause for breath between the word smart and phone. It’s harder than ever to wholly and simply be here now.

The etiquette of cell phone use has not evolved at the same speed as it’s popularity. It’s common for eye contact and conversation to be routinely interrupted as we check our phones compulsively the second we hear the buzz of some incoming text or email. Pavlov’s dog has nothing on us. We are constantly being called out of the tangible moment.

It often reminds me of the Star Trek episode, “The Game,” where an addictive pleasure technology finds its way on board the starship and suddenly everyone is walking around with the little screens fixed just before their eyes, smiling and absent from the world around them.

Mindlessness is a modern epidemic. With the presence of increasingly more portable technology, we are even less likely to be in the moment — dividing our attention between what’s happening in real life and what’s happening in text or email land. It’s easy to find ourselves not giving loved ones our full attention, meaningful eye contact, or authentic empathy. Not for a lack of caring, but for a lack of presence.

As we hurry from this to that, anxiously planning our next move, trying to keep up with the game, we are in fact one step behind; in danger of not truly living, but letting our automatic pilot guide us through a tasteless, scentless, textureless existence.

The good news is, we can snap out of it right now. In fact, right now is the only time we can snap out of it.

Humans already have a propensity to get lost in remembered past or projected future. As Mark Twain said, “I have known many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Add this tendency to our increasingly distracting modern technology and the resulting noise can overwhelm our ability to live in the moment.

[Dan Mountford]

Before we know it, we’ve driven ten miles, or walked five blocks, without truly seeing anything we’ve passed.

Mindfulness, the focused awareness of the present moment and all it contains, can bring the attention back; so that we are not zombies going through life on automatic, but in that apex of unfolding existence, the living moment.

Ancient Eastern mysticism attributes the mind’s mania for avoiding the present moment to the Ego’s struggle for survival.

Metaphysically speaking, the Ego is a false construct of the mind that is not rooted in ultimate being. It is self-centric and lacking a natural sense of connectivity. In the living moment of the present, the Ego holds no power. Because the Ego itself  is imaginary and unreal, it can only hold dominion in the imagined and unreal moments of the past and future.

When we become fully present in the moment, we experience a sense of increased color, clarity, and vitality. But the Ego loses its hold over our attention, and instantly conspires to get it back.

The study of being is the basis of Ontology, an entire branch of philosophy in itself.

In it’s most basic sense, being denotes a sense of self-awareness that extends beyond the self into the moment at hand and the world at large. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger uses the word Dasein, (which in German, literally means being-there/there-being) as a co-term for being-in-the-world.

According to Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, the Ego-run mind “creates an opaque screen of concepts, labels, images, words, judgements and definitions.”  These mental constructs are the currency with which the mind operates, and the ego relates to these constructs rather than to reality directly.

Interestingly, this description echoes our relationship to digital life, relating to things which represent reality, rather than reality itself. We may be looking at a picture of a flower, but in it’s true form the image is nothing but a block of code.

According to Tolle, this opaque screen created by the Ego blocks all true relationships and creates the illusion of separateness. We no longer feel at one with all that is, even if we believe in theory that we are all inter-connected, in reality we feel cut-off.

Eastern mystical teachings identify this sense of isolation as an illusion, an idea supported by scientific fact. On a molecular level, there is no distinction between the molecules of my hand and the molecules of your hand as they touch, not such hard lines between us as we may perceive.

In the Eastern concept of Maya, we do not experience the environment itself but rather a projection of it, created by our perception. Modern science has confirmed this; neurologically, we are literally reconstructing the world inside our brains in order to perceive it.

Tuning into the present moment can help us relate directly with our environment, rather than relating to our own inner constructions and projections as a substitute for the living world.

Mindfulness blurs the line between self and other,” explains Michael Kernis, a psychologist at the University of Georgia. “When people are mindful, they’re more likely to experience themselves as part of humanity [and] as part of a greater universe. That’s why highly mindful people such as Buddhist monks talk about being one with everything.”

Mindfulness can be practiced at all times, in all places. It is simply the art of awareness, the savoring of details, cultivating alertness to one’s thoughts and feelings, without getting wrapped up in them.

“In the practice of right mindfulness,” explains Buddhist monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, “the mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped […] the mind is deliberately kept at the level of bare attention, a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment.”

To become the master of our own mind is to become a peaceful witness to the thoughts and feelings which pass through us. This is the essence of mindfulness, and can be developed by practicing extended periods of calm, alert awareness.

If you watch for your next thought like a cat watches a hole for a mouse, the mere act of alert waiting can slow the inner chatter.

After some time practicing meditation, the student will begin to experience times of prolonged inner calm, free of internal dialogue. The discovery is made: I am not my thoughts. 

Who or what we are when we have ceased to identify with our thoughts and hence our Ego, is the beginning of enlightenment, according to Eastern tradition. Even if you consider the idea of enlightenment unrealistic, quieting the mind has been proven to enhance well-being.

According to Psychology Today, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, found that schoolteachers briefly trained in Buddhist techniques who meditated less than 30 minutes a day improved their moods as much as if they had taken antidepressants.

For anyone interested in pursuing this avenue, I recommend Sakyong Mipham’s Turning the Mind into an Ally.  For an even easier introduction and guided support, check out the free app “Headspace.”

Though traditional meditation is one option, it’s not the only way to achieve increased presence.

Mindfulness can be practiced wherever you are, simply by bringing awareness out of the abstract and into the tangible.

This could mean anything from admiring the swirl of woodgrain on a table, to running your hand against the rough bark of a tree, to relishing the flavor of the food you’re putting in your mouth. As renown modern architect  Ludwig mies van der Rhoe said, “God is in the details.”

Another helpful practice is to remember the temporary nature of all things. Though we know everything changes in theory, in actuality, we often act (and secretly feel) like things will stay the same indefinitely — acting as though this friend or that place will always be around. But people change, people pass away, parks get paved over, nations go to war. This moment will never come again.

The living moment is all that’s real, and all that will ever be real — the past a memory, the future a dream.

When I heard the sound of the bell ringing, there was no bell, and there was no I — there was only the ringing.” ~ Anonymous 

In such a transcendence we do not lose ourselves, as we might fear, but rather gain the richness of feeling part of our world. Each cell within us is distinct and separate, yet part of the greater body.

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand
And eternity in an hour.

William Blake 

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§ 34 Responses to The World in a Grain of Sand

  • Ahhh. Just allowing your words into my world both calmed and centered me as I read. You are a brilliant wordsmith and I am a brilliant reader of words, a process that transforms symbols on a screen into images in the deepest mind.
    What a joy to return from work and see your “blog” in my “inbox.”
    (What strange words we use these days!)

    Thank you Tai.

    -Shuna from Washington State

    • taicarmen says:

      Shuna, your words have the same affect on me. Just knowing the symbols are translating good things across time and space, is food to my spirit. Thank *you* for your lovely note. TC

  • wdednh says:

    Awesome post, very deep an touching thank you.

  • solefield says:

    Another wonderful article… this is something I am really trying to focus on and I love all the different angles you address. Thank you!

    • taicarmen says:

      Thank you for telling me! I so appreciate knowing it. My goal is to add a bright thread of thought — something good to people’s lives, no matter how small. So, hearing the posts are doing so fuels me to write my next one! 😀 TC

  • batgurrl says:

    This brought me back to center and my lifetime quest of “Be Here Now”. You are right this new world consumes us with multi tasking and never ending data input. It is good to stop and enjoy the birds in the trees or the unfolding of a sunset.

  • John M says:

    I’m so happy I found your blog. I look forward to reading your older posts while I wait for the next one. I’m posting a link to your site so I can share it with some of my readers.

    Here are two quotes I found about mindfulness:

    A child walks with its mother.
    It sees an oily rainbow
    On the road, a leaf, veined
    And dappled, on the path,
    A puddle full of clouds,
    A smiling dog, a cat
    That needs to be stroked,
    A builder’s van all a-rattle,
    A gentle robin.
    What did you see?
    ~Peter Gray

    Do we need to make a special effort to enjoy the blue sky?
    Do we have to practice to be able to enjoy it?
    No, we just enjoy it.
    Each second,
    Each minute of our lives can be like this.
    Wherever we are, any time, we have the capacity to enjoy the sunshine, the presence of each other, even the sensation of our breathing.
    We don’t need to go to China
    To enjoy the blue sky.
    We don’t have to travel into the future
    To enjoy our breathing
    We can be in touch with these things right now.
    ~Thich Nhat Hanh

  • John M says:

    Here’s another quote I thought you would like:

    I believe that only one person in a thousand knows the trick of really living in the present. Most of us spend
    59 minutes an hour living in the past, with regret for lost joys, or shame for things badly done (both utterly
    useless and weakening) – or in a future which we either long for or dread.
    Yet the past is gone beyond prayer, and every minute you spend in the vain effort to anticipate the future is a moment lost.
    There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute. There is only one minute in which you are alive, this minute – here and now.
    The only way to live is by accepting each minute as an unrepeatable miracle. Which is exactly what it is – a miracle and unrepeatable.
    ~Storm Jameson, novelist, 1891-1986

    • taicarmen says:

      Wow!!! That is so wonderfully put! Thank you for sharing it. I think I’ll have to repost this on our facebook page. Simply stunning.

      “There is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute.”

      Yes! Will have to check out this Storm Jameson!

  • Coville.R says:

    this is a very beautiful expression and reminder

    peace god, one love

  • John M says:

    Again I’ve found another quote:

    Look at everything as though you were seeing it either for the first or last time.

    ~Betty Smith, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

  • Jon Hilton says:

    Interesting and timely post. We are only going to have more technology invade our lives. This is a great perspective. Thanks

  • Fabulous post. I love your site and am putting a link to it on my blog under Totally Fabulous Sites. I use the time that a tab takes to load to bring my mind back to the present, it’s basically short meditations throughout my internet time and it really helps not to get caught up. I love the photos as well.

    • taicarmen says:

      Wow! That’s super-cool! So glad you liked it. Yes: the little moments of deliberate mindfulness like you describe are definitely not to be underestimated. *Be well* TC

  • Tom says:

    Beautiful tie-in between the ancient art of mindfulness and the absurdity of convenience technology. My generation looks a little silly with their heads buried in their phones during all waking hours. This is more than a post, it’s a concept.

  • I’m so glad you wrote this, and I’m so glad I found it! Lately I’ve been thinking about mindfullness vs. mindlessness a lot, because the virtual reality which we are continually living in more and more scares me.
    Thanks for the reminder that there are other people out there who want to live in the world, not through screens.

    • taicarmen says:

      Thanks for your thoughtfully shared words. I do feel a post coming on exploring this in more detail… It’s been on my mind, too. Thanks for letting me know it would be of interest to others! 🙂 Dreamers unite!! TC

  • Hey Tai, beautiful thoughts.

    What’s a good email to reach you at? I sent a message to and got a rejection notice back.

  • dinilpi says:

    Listen to this piece of Conversation from the movie Il postino.., between Neruda and Mario (Neruda’s postman)

    Mario: I’d like to be a poet too.
    Neruda: No, it’s more original being a Postman.
    Mario: How do you become a poet?
    Neruda:…Walk around the bay slowly and look around you…
    Mario: And will they come to me, these metaphors?
    Neruda: Certainly.

    And Mario started to write… started to love… started to live the life of a mere human being.

    Allow me to brag a bit… In India, these fundas (pardon me for using such casual words) are quite common…

    for some of us life itself is meditation, if you take the meaning of meditation beyond the one we sit, close our eyes and do… probably it is something like dissolving the ‘self’ in the mother nature…

    • Tai Carmen says:

      Beautiful! I completely agree that, ideally, life itself is one continual meditation. Everything should be a meditation on presence, absolutely. That is the goal!

      So sorry my reply was delayed…it appears I missed a few comments when they came through. But I enjoyed reading your inspiring words.

      On on, and journey well!


  • dinilpi says:

    Listen to this piece of Conversation from the movie Il postino.., between Neruda and Mario (Neruda’s postman)

    Mario: I’d like to be a poet too.
    Neruda: No, it’s more original being a Postman.
    Mario: How do you become a poet?
    Neruda:…Walk around the bay slowly and look around you…
    Mario: And will they come to me, these metaphors?
    Neruda: Certainly.

    And Mario started to write… started to love… started to live the life beyond that of a mere human being.

    Allow me to brag a bit… In India, these fundas (pardon me for using such casual words) are quite common…

    for some of us life itself is meditation, if you take the meaning of meditation beyond the one we sit, close our eyes and do… probably it is something like dissolving the ‘self’ in the mother nature…

    • taicarmen says:

      It’s something I admire very much about Indian culture, the fact that these ideas are commonplace. Unfortunately, sometimes we need to be reminded of them in the West! Lovely quote. TC

  • R-1245 says:

    As a Christian with studies in Theology, I have to say your post has blessed me today and is so, so true….

    When Paul says “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind”, he is actually saying to leave the unfairness and insanity of society behind…

    He even goes further to state: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise…” he is actually saying to take control of your thoughts, for no one should be a slave to their thoughts… we are more.

    And yes, to be in the present, where there is no fear, no scattered thoughts, just a sense of peace, of being as Christ always was, in the moment. Beyond religion, or denominations, or men in suits that are in the traffic of faith for the big bucks.

    Just in the moment, living, breathing, experiencing the spark of the divine in creation…

    God bless you. 🙂

  • tanya alexandra richards says:

    This mindfulness is very powerful mental state, where you are fully aware and yet conscious without being self conscious. I enter that space
    when I paint in my studio. My work only begins to appear I disappear.

    • taicarmen says:

      Beautifully stated, Tanya! Thank you for sharing this glimpse into how you achieve mindfulness. It reminds me of this quote by the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, which I love:

      “In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task.”

      Csíkszentmihályi defined flow as “a mental state of operation in which a person is fully immersed in an activity, with a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.” (More on this in my post “Transcending Fear, Finding Flow.”)

      I think art — painting in particular — is one of the most thrilling and fulfilling examples of being in the flow and completely present in an activity.
      I love your description that your work only begins to appear when you disappear. Such a beautiful way to describe that artist’s sense of being a vessel, of getting out of ones own way.

      On on!


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