Add comment March 7th, 2009
Initially recorded in the days when digital storage was vastly more expensive, this pithy phrase wastes no words in its safety reminder. In three simple words, the phrase reminds British train passengers to pay attention to the gap between the train and the platform lest they trip and fall. In the hustle and bustle of a busy train station, even a sizable gap could go unnoticed by a distracted passenger. People regularly fail to notice things from not being in the present moment.
I watched a woman walk right through the wet cement of a newly paved sidewalk because she was too engaged in a cell phone conversation to notice the large orange cones, bright yellow warning tape, and the distinctively different colored cement. At an exhibit at the Tate, some people failed to notice a new art installation: a large 10-inch wide crack in the cement floor. In another example, busy DC metro riders ignored a virtuosic musical performance by world class violinist Joshua Bell. In each of these cases, people were oblivious to their environments because their attentions were focused away from the present.
Though we try to avoid zoning out, wandering (or otherwise distracted) attentions are natural and part of being human. Being perpetually in the moment is an admirable goal, but ultimately it is an unachievable ideal. Our attentions will at some point slip, and we will inevitably fall out of the moment. An important part of living mindfully is learning to recognize when we slip away from the present; we mind the gaps in our attentions so that we can bring ourselves back into moment.
Just as we can learn to perceive the gaps in our attentions, we can also learn to take advantage of other gaps in our lives. Being able to maintain sharp mental focus on a task often comes as a benefit of mindfulness training. With proper focus on a task, the task gets done much more efficiently. However, constant mental focus on a single task wears down your mental energy and functions as a set of blinders which take you out of the moment. The modern emphasis on constant productivity means we get fewer and fewer periods of downtime when we can unwind and return to just being. We move from one task to another and become so conditioned to being constantly “on” that we even structure our vacation time. Over the long term, the constant focus on getting things done and never savoring simple moments just wears us down.
Given that a return to an idyllic society is highly unlikely, learning to take advantage of our precious moments of downtime becomes crucial. In a discussion with my teacher, we asked how he was able to stay collected and avoid burn out with all of his traveling and seemingly crazy schedule. His answer was that he learned to recognize his periods of downtime, and use those opportunities to be in the moment. These instances of being in the moment, no matter how short, were his method of rejuvenation. It’s these moments, between our frantic efforts of putting out daily fires, where we can relax and just be. We do not need to fill every single gap in our schedules with “productive” time.
Minding the gaps is how we cultivate our ability to live in the moment. The London Underground got it right with their three word recording. They just didn’t realize the full significance of their words.