We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep. I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts.”
– Henry David Thoreau, Walden
It seems to me that here Thoreau is talking about the practice of mindfully appreciating life’s moments.
When we stay “awake” to the present moment, life takes on a richness that isn’t accessible in thought or fantasy. Regardless of whether our current experience is pleasant or unpleasant, we are really there for it. We are fully tasting the reality around us. Something about that always feels wholesome and satisfying.
The “medium through which we look” is our awareness. We can cultivate an “atmosphere” of openness which immerses awareness in the moment in a way unhindered by expectations, desires for things to be different, and fantasies of past and future.
By doing so we deeply “affect the quality of the day”. We tune our receiver to life so that instead of a fuzzy lo-fi picture, we’re experiencing in HD! We notice all the little details that we were missing before, and we fully appreciate the significance of the big important things.
Meditation is the best way of which I know to practice “the highest of arts.” If you can learn to appreciate the subtleties of your breath, something normally so mundane and boring, then it will become quite easy to fully appreciate the things which you already consider worthy of your attention – such as the taste of your coffee, or the sound of good music.
Even if you practice a meditation that has nothing to do with your breath, the idea is still the same. You are training awareness to stay present. You are working to better “the very atmosphere and medium through which we look”.
So right now: reawaken! Keep yourself awake. Your day will be much better for it 🙂