How to get better at being

There’s so much to do and remember every day!
There’s so much to do and remember every day!
Image: Reuters/Edgard Garrido
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Given that we are all breathing, it’s safe to say that we’re all pretty good at being. All day, every day, we exist—our hearts beat, our bodies function more or less—without us having to do too too much to ensure these processes continue.

Yet we suspect that there is some other level of existence we might operate on, another plane of being, where we’re living consciously and cultivating our best selves and maybe even feeling really good. So we exercise and aspire and try things, and that’s right and good. We can improve life with activities.

We can also get better at existence by doing less, not making an effort and simply paying more attention to what is already happening, according to Diana Winston, author of The Little Book of Being: Practices and Guidance for Uncovering Your Natural Awareness.

Winston, director of mindfulness education at UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC), has been teaching meditative practices in hospitals, universities, corporations, nonprofits, and schools in the US and Asia for 20 years. Her new book compiles these two decades of experience into a series of 72 short lessons on natural awareness, which she argues is already available to everyone and is the key to living well.

We are all already aware

Natural awareness, as Winston describes it, is different from our common states. In it we feel spacious, open, rested, content. Not struggling or resisting, just being. It’s a kind of effortless mindfulness, a time when we are not plagued by thoughts and worries and are fine with whatever’s happening, with “just this,” as Winston puts it.

Her book aims to make readers conscious of this process, which can happen without prompting, to allow them  to access it more often, improving the quality of their lives from moment to moment. Cumulatively, moments make up our existence, yet so much of our time is spent in busy and anxious states, thinking about the future or the past, our to-do lists, our regrets, or the entertainments and distractions we use to forget all that and we’re rarely just being.

Winston gets it. She’s got the same tendencies. She likens natural awareness to a radio station that’s always broadcasting but that we rarely tune in to, writing, “We tend to tune to station anxiety, station catastrophizing, KPFJudgment or WNCAnger. So even though natural awareness is part of being human, we need to practice tuning in to it in order for it to become the radio station we listen to most often.”

The natural awareness station plays the greatest hits

Those who are tuned it to this station, Winston says, will feel more calm, think less frantically, be less inclined to dramatize their lives, and be less burdened by the demands of ego. They will be less reactive and more responsive, she promises.

Many people meditate to prompt that transformation, and Winston does too. Her book is refreshingly egalitarian: She espouses no hierarchies of practice. She doesn’t think it’s more important to sit cross-legged on a cushion and contemplate breath than it is to pay attention to your mind when you’re staring out a train window on your morning commute, while working on a project or enjoying your lunch. Any time you can connect with the present, you’re improving existence, she argues.

The first step is to become aware of the notion of natural awareness. And now you are, so that’s done.

How to build upon awareness

The next step is to cultivate practices that enhance it. Meditation may be one of those. The key, however, isn’t to get good at sitting—it’s to start tuning in to the part of you that’s already cool, the part of you ignoring what’s good because you have so much to get done or because you’re focused on what’s wrong. Winston provides what she calls “glimpse practices” which are brief exercises she uses to remember to settle back into awareness. And she explains how simply they work for her, writing “Right at the moment I wrote this sentence, I looked outside and saw the pinkish sunset clouds above me. I softened my body…and settled my mind for a moment. A feeling of contentment rose over me, pervading my typing.”

The third step is embodying that awareness, getting in touch with this underlying sense of self with increasing frequency so that we get better at just being. This is a lifetime process, Winston warns, and not a linear one. Knowing that takes the pressure off—you’ll never totally master existence and get to a point where you always feel chill.

Still, you can actually become more chill by deciding to pay attention, she says. “It’s a rare person who lives in natural awareness entirely every moment. Most of us flow in and out of it,” Winston writes. “But touching it again and again has a deep impact on our sense of self, and we slowly start to live from it.”