Mindful Awareness participants gathered outside the lecture hall after the event concluded.

Mindful Awareness participants gathered outside the lecture hall after the event concluded. (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

LOS ANGELES — When we turn our minds to the present moment, rather than focus on the past or the future, we receive unexpected gifts. The present is a gift. Pop-spiritual teacher and public speaker Eckhart Tolle explained the idea of this “inner state of connectedness” in a recent conversation with Google Vice President of People Development, Karen May, at Wisdom 2.0, a conference dedicated to mindfulness in the digital age. “The person becomes an instrument for the consciousness, and that’s all. I don’t know what is going to be said next — there is no plan,” he explained to May. “This is a ‘complete surrender to the present moment.’” I wasn’t at Tolle’s conversation in-person, but I did watch it on YouTube and felt present with it. In real life, I went to an regular weekly event at the Hammer Museum called Mindful Awareness Meditation, which discussed many of the same spiritual tools for staying in the moment.

As I made my way to the Hammer Museum, I was very aware of the fact that I would arrive late to the event — but something told me to go anyway. When I stepped up to the glass doors at the Billy Wilder Theater, I noticed a sign that said guests were welcome to stay for five minutes, 30 minutes, or however long we felt like it. There was no late or early; were allowed to come and go as we pleased. In that way, I felt that I was right on time. I silenced my phone and snuck into a seat in the front row between two guys who were already in that inner state of connectedness. I turned around and noticed that the auditorium was packed. It was a little after 12:30pm, and so most people were on their lunch break.

Echkart Tolle and Karen May at Wisdom 2.0. Image via YouTube.

Echkart Tolle and Karen May at Wisdom 2.0. (screenshot via YouTube)

Meditation mindfulness instructor Gloria Kamler M.A. sat in a chair on the stage, gently guiding all attendees through simple exercises about mindfulness. She instructed us to notice our faces, and identify where we were holding tension. I realized that mine was in my jaw, which was probably caused by my worry about being late. Good thing I had arrived at the perfect moment.

Kamler gently asked us to notice our breath, and pick a place to focus on while we let air in and out. I chose my stomach, which slowly inflated like a balloon with each inhale, and decompressed with each exhale. My eyes were closed, as were most other people in the room. This is different than my current meditation practice, in which I keep my eyes open and focused on a single object located on the ground. By closing my eyes in this practice at the Hammer Museum, however, I began to notice the random thoughts drifting in — most of them were work-related. It was the middle of the day, after all. Everything was okay in the present moment.

Then someone’s mobile device buzzed and sang, tingling with a reminder that someone was trying to get in touch. Rather than break the meditation, Kamler led us through it, suggesting that this was part of the experience today. Soon the ringing became as much a part of that half-hour meditation as the constantly chirping hummingbirds are in the Los Angeles backyard where I do my morning meditation.

That day at the Hammer Museum, the owner of that mobile device didn’t shut it off. Today we have the option to stay present in real-life, or online — to be in both as once is not as easy, and at times it feels as if the real world is interrupting the virtual one.

With mindful awareness of our ability to always be present, perhaps there will be a way to eventually be fully in both worlds. At least, that’s what Facebook’s recent acquisition of virtual technology Oculus would have us believe. Says Zuckerberg in the Facebook blog post announcement:

When you put it [the Oculus Rift headset] on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people.

For now, I’ll try to visit the Hammer Museum for this same experience of being present with other people in meditation without an Oculus Rift headset or a computer screen. Who knows what the future holds, though. For now, I will take this gift as the present.

Mindful Awareness Meditation takes place every Thursday at the Hammer Museum’s Bill Wilder Theater (10899 Wilshire Boulevard, Westwood) from 12:30–1pm. 

Alicia Eler is a cultural critic and arts reporter. She is the author of the book The Selfie Generation (Skyhorse Publishing), which has been reviewed in the New York Times, WIRED Magazine and the Chicago...