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How to Live More Consciously

We want – almost all of us – to live as long as possible. But in our urgent and never-guaranteed search to extend life, we ignore a more realistic and significant possibility: that of altering how intensely we live it.

Crucially, not all time is equal. Time stretches and extends the more we take hold of events dissect them and turn them over in our minds – just as it seems to shrink and run through us when we only squint at reality, perhaps because we are too scared of the future, sad about the past, obedient to an agenda set by people around us or ambitious about what’s to come.

Every minute we are alive is equal from a purely physiological basis but at the level of the psyche, we can speak of periods of being more or less aware of being here; we can – as it were – live more or less consciously. 

Painting by Sorolla of three children running through the surf on a beach.
Joachin Sorolla, Children at the Beach, 1899

Without trying, small children are masters of conscious living – which is why a walk with them to the park may take four times as long as we had anticipated. There are, after all, so many leaves to examine, so many flat large pebbles, so many walls to run one’s fingers along and concrete ledges and lines of putty to caress or palpate. 

If time seems to speed up as we get older, it’s because we unconsciously decide that we have, in most areas, already noticed everything that it would be significant and charming to see. We walk to the park – and around the globe – with a blindfold. Our days get emptier because we perceive ever less in them. There is no need to look too closely at trees any more, or the cables by the television, or the legs of a giraffe or our partner’s hands or the cloud formations in mid-afternoon. It might have been three decades at least since we looked properly at an apple or a light switch. Matters that would have detained us at the age of four lose all definition, until we discover with horror that it is autumn again and we don’t know where another year has gone.

The difference between living and living consciously is like the difference between swallowing something at once and chewing it at length. The conscious liver doesn’t merely want to have an experience, they want to work out how it operates and achieves its effect on the mind – and this in the case of two kinds of experiences in particular, painful and beautiful ones. 

For example, the conscious liver might find themselves by a lake on a warm summer day. They are – like everyone else – aware of beauty. But they also have an unusually powerful wish not to let this beauty slip away from them and seek to arrest its dispersal through a set of questions. As they look around, they might wonder: why is this moving me so much? What have I been missing throughout winter? What am I normally afraid of? How is today reassuring me? What makes this shade of blue in the sky so welcoming? What is it about the trees that makes them so enticing? 

We don’t need to be poets or artists to digest our experiences more thoroughly but we can learn from these disciplines about how to study the world and bottle and preserve its most valuable moments (so that that grass, and the smell of foxgloves and the sound of a song thrush will still be alive in us in early February).

We can live more consciously too around painful events. Here as well we can try to slow time’s dispersal with a web of questions: What made that colleague so unpleasant? Why exactly are we feeling so downhearted with our friend? What lies behind our fear of people who like us too intensely? Why do we get so irritated by cynicism? Where is this present sadness about work rooted?

Once we master the art of conscious living, we can afford to be a little less concerned with how long our lives will be. Another decade more or less won’t have to be the decisive matter when it lies permanently in our power to densify time, and when we can find the amount of content more normally associated with a month in the bounds of a single day. We can slow the reductive march of the clock with the tendrils of our own sensitivity. We should perhaps stop asking how old people are and focus on a more telling and more accurate measure of their time on earth: how consciously they are living.

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