Don’t Forget to Look Up: A Lesson in Mindful Awareness

If you’re local to Utah, you know about Zion National Park and a famous hike called the Narrows. It's a gorgeous slot canyon that people travel from all over the world to see.

I once got a permit with a friend of mine from Norway to hike this slot canyon. I'd heard about the dangers of flash flooding, and I went into the ranger’s station feeling nervous. I had all these questions running in my mind — Did I have the gear I needed? What if it rains? Do I need a helmet? — as I asked the ranger, "Do you have any final advice for me?”

I think the ranger could sense my nervousness, but she just smiled at me and said, "Yeah. Don't forget to look up."

I thought this was funny advice. It might have been the very last thing on my mind to actually remember to pay attention to the beautiful scenery for this hike that I had gone to great lengths to do and that people come from all over the world to do.

But sure enough the next morning when I got into the river with my friend, I noticed that the path was really uneven and the further down the canyon we got, the quicker the current got, the deeper the water in some points, and it was hard to keep my footing. At a lot of different points along the ten-hour hike I noticed myself staring down at my feet. And I remembered this ranger’s advice. Don't forget to look up.

It's occurred to me since then that this is very good advice for living a mindful life as well.

In a similar way as hiking the Narrows in Zion, there are different things going on in life moment to moment that can trip us up. Things that can absorb our attention and cause our attention to collapse. This is one of the great challenges in human life. We tend to collapse around a challenging event, and we lose the perspective of the whole, the entirety of what's going on around us.

Another simple example of this is when you stub your toe. All is peachy and dandy, and then your attention absolutely collapses into the throbbing pain in your toe. It’s like there's nothing else happening in the world but this throbbing pain. Suddenly, anything you're aware of in previous moments is collapsed in to the problem.

At this point, I want to say that it's wonderful that we're actually wired to pay attention to problems, right? if we didn't, we wouldn't survive life in the city. We wouldn't pay any attention to the horn of a bus that's blaring and it would flatten us as we blithely walk out in to the street. So it's very functional and adaptive that our attention is wired to pay attention to problems.

The downside is that we can spend our whole lives attending to problems.

Moment to moment we can get caught in this state of collapse that's ongoing. And that's what I noticed vividly on my hike in Zion. If I didn't remember to slow down and take a breath — get my footing and look up — I would've missed the spectacular scenery that was the whole point of being there.

Similarly, as we practice mindfulness we can remember to slow down, take a breath, soften, and look up, so to speak. It doesn't mean that the ground isn't still uneven. It doesn't mean that there aren't still obstacles and challenges in our environment.

What it means is that when we're aware of ourselves looking down or in or collapsing in to the problem that comes up moment to moment, we can remember that ranger’s advice.

Look up. Relax. Let awareness start to sprawl. As we do that, the challenges of the moment are still here, but they're held in the context of the whole: all of life. The experience of the experience of the totality of this moment which if you allow your awareness to relax in to it, you'll find is inherently rewarding to pay attention to.

We are going to practice noticing the way that awareness collapses into a problem and we're going to notice the natural ability of awareness to open back up. To take in and more fully appreciate the whole. So I invite you to find a comfortable place to sit down and to settle in.

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Start by bringing awareness to the physical body, feeling sensation flowing through you.

Notice the rise and fall of the breath — and the sensation of breathing. Notice that on each out-breath the body just naturally softens and lets go, making way for the next breath.

Now, I want you to bring attention to the most challenging aspect of your experience in this moment. It might be discomfort in the body, it might be emotional discomfort, or it might be a thought in the mind about a condition in life that's challenging that you. Just allow your attention to be absorbed in whatever it is in this moment.

If your attention is drawn to a sensation in the body or an emotion, you can just observe it very closely, noticing its texture, quality, and shape. If it's a condition in your life that you find your mind returning to again and again, you can notice what impact that thought has on the body, what emotion it brings up and what response, fully allowing it to be present. Not pushing on it or struggling with it, but rather enveloping it in awareness in this moment.

And you can let the contracted muscle of awareness start to relax a little bit, start to let go. Feel the spaciousness of awareness even as the challenge may persist.

Notice the physical body in this moment. And you can be aware of emotional activity coming up in awareness in this moment. Letting it rise, linger, and pass — letting awareness fully envelop and surround and permeate all emotional activity.

And you can be aware of thoughts coming up in the moment, thoughts rising in awareness. You don't have to latch on to them or dive in to them or think about them any further. You can just notice thoughts rising in awareness. Awareness, like the wide open sky — letting it all be present.

Notice that the world itself is also rising in your awareness. Feel the vastness, openness, spaciousness of awareness itself and the way that experience naturally arises in the space of this awareness. There's room for it all and room for more.

Staying in contact with this spaciousness, you can notice again the challenge we started with. And notice that this challenge — this stone in a river — is just one element in an infinitely beautiful landscape full of other stones. The river flowing, trees hanging off the canyon walls, the scenery towering over us, all about us.

This moment and every moment is an invitation to look up, look in, to experience the fullness of this moment. We're reminded to open back up in to this spaciousness of awareness that is always already the case.