The Mindful Revolution

Finding peace in a stressed-out, digitally dependent culture may just be a matter of thinking differently

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Photograph by Peter Hapak for TIME

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After eight weeks, we gathered one Saturday for a final exercise, a five-hour retreat. We brought our lunches, and after meditating and doing yoga, we ate together silently in a second-floor room overlooking a park. After the meal, Paulette led us into the park and told us to walk around for 30 minutes in a meditation practice known as aimless wandering. No phones and no talking. Just be present, she said.

As I looked across a vast lawn, I easily spotted my fellow MBSR students. They looked like zombies weaving and wandering alone through groups of friends and families lounging on picnic blankets or talking and barbecuing. I saw a group of 20-something men playing Frisbee, young kids riding bikes and a pair of women tanning in the sun.

I had lived close to this park for three years and spent hundreds of hours exploring it, but what struck me as different on the day of the retreat were the sounds. I noticed the clap, clap of a jogger's sneakers going by on a paved path. I saw a group playing volleyball on the lawn, and for the first time, I heard the game. The ball thudded when it hit the grass and whapped when it was being served. The players grunted when they made contact. Thud, whap, grunt. Whap, whap, thud. I heard a soft jingling, and I knew just what it was. A dog with metal ID tags came up behind me and passed by. Jingle, jingle.

After the prescribed half hour, we returned to our meeting room with Paulette. We had a brief group discussion about how we could continue our mindfulness training through other classes, and then we folded our chairs and put them away in a closet. Silently, we eased down a set of stairs and out the front door. I made it all the way home before I turned on my phones.

In the months since, I haven't meditated much, yet the course has had a small--but profound--impact on my life. I've started wearing a watch, which has cut in half the number of times a day I look at my iPhone and risk getting sucked into checking email or the web. On a tip from one of my MBSR classmates, when I'm at a restaurant and a dining companion gets up to take a call or use the bathroom, I now resist the urge to read the news or check Facebook on my phone. Instead, I usually just sit and watch the people around me. And when I walk outside, I find myself smelling the air and listening to the soundtrack of the city. The notes and rhythms were always there, of course. But these days they seem richer and more important.

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