Years ago, my husband Ian and I took a trip to the gorgeous and unique terrain of Joshua Tree National Park. There were many beautiful landscapes to savor with our eyes, but when we first arrived, I struggled to concentrate.
I had left town with a personal conflict unresolved, and while away in the desert, I had limited cell phone access to bring it to resolution. At this point, there was very little I could do about it but wait.
Looking back now, it was a relatively small issue, and it all turned out fine. But at the time, I could not stop thinking about it. I was in the presence of so much beauty, but I continued to focus on the situation that was causing me the most stress and anxiety. As we human beings are so prone to do, I could not live in the moment at hand right before me.
Dr. Ellen Langer, prolific scholar and researcher on mindfulness, uses a particular phrase to describe this kind of experience. She says that so frequently, we live in a perpetual state of constant partial attention.
Constant partial attention. . . Isn’t that a perfect way to describe this kind of experience? So often, we move through our days simply going through the motions, rarely paying attention to what is right in front of us. Instead, our minds gravitate toward our to-do lists and the situations that make us most anxious. We get stuck mulling over the past or worrying about our imagined future. In the process, we miss the present moment.
And this is nothing short of tragic, because there is much to experience right before us! The present moment is a holy doorway: Through it, we can connect more fully with our surroundings, our inner life, our neighbors, and the deep stirrings of the Spirit.
It’s all right there before us,
a veritable feast for all our senses.
But so often, we settle for constant partial attention.
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning has a creative way of capturing this as well. She says,
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries. 
Those are true, creative words which inspire us toward recognition.
During that trip to Joshua Tree National Park, I knew I could no longer fixate upon a conflict I could not change. So I invented a practice which served me well for the rest of our trip. Five years later, I still return to it.
I call it Now-ing.
Now-ing can serve as a spiritual practice or even game of sorts. It has two basic rules:
- Pay attention to what is around you. Take time to notice more deeply. See, hear, and smell the scenery. Feel the wind blowing. Notice the people around you. Experience gratitude.
- Only think about or ponder a) what is right in front of you and/or b) something one reminder away. For example, we can think about a tree in front of us and/or what the tree reminds us of. A tree might remind us of a memory, a hope, a person, or something else. It might even wake us up to a new idea or direction. All of that can be pondered and savored along with the tree.
But! In this game, our thoughts can only move one segue away. There is no need to turn this into a string of thoughts which will take us away from the present moment and what is presently before us, i.e.
the tree in front of you,
reminds you of a memory, which
reminds you of your second-cousin, which
reminds you that you need to make a phone call, which
reminds you of all the unanswered emails, which
reminds you of your workplace, which
reminds you of your workplace bully, which
reminds you of your long-lasting sense of insecurity. . .
or whatever that string may be.
When Now-ing, if we go to a place like that, we can gently bring ourselves back to the present moment and its surroundings with no judgment. This can be practiced again and again. There is no failing. It is a spiritual practice and game that we can’t lose.
Instead, with the present moment gifting us all the time, there is only room to gain.