Stop and Smell the Roses

December 13, 2018
Reading time: 4 minutes
Appreciation, Happiness


We’re all familiar with the old saying “stop and smell the roses.” We also know that it’s an idiom meant to encourage us to take a pause and appreciate our present moment. It came as no surprise to me that this phrase originated in the 1970s right about the time that society began moving, rather quickly, away from wartime and into the booming economy of the 1980s. Etymology aside, its message is still what’s important.

How often do you stop to really experience the things around you? To observe them and take them in?

My guess is not that often. We are all guilty of moving too quickly, breezing past the things we deem unimportant, and checking off our to-do lists. We live in a society that values results, production, and concentration, and while these things certainly are not bad, they just steal a bit too much of our attention. They are also, not coincidentally, the virtues of the current month of Capricorn.

The kabbalists teach that the world we experience with our five senses is only 1% of what is actually going on. The other 99% is everything that is unseen, but this doesn’t necessarily mean non-physical things. It’s everything we are unaware of, all of the things we miss due to focusing our attention on everything we have to do, problems we’re currently facing, and what’s happening tomorrow, next week, next year. When we are in this consciousness for too long, we also miss the beautiful gifts, blessings, and miracles that are unfolding around us all of the time.

In her book On Looking, cognitive therapistAlexandra Horowitz took a walk around her New York City block eleven different times with eleven different experts from an artist to a geologist to a dog. Each time she emerged mesmerized with new fascinations about her once very familiar environment. Each walk was more different than the last but always spanned the same exact stretch of Manhattan sidewalk. She unknowingly echoes the kabbalists when she describes just how little we experience what we call “reality”:

“Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.

By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or the whine of a kitchen appliance.”

So how do we break the spell? We take advice from that old idiom and we pause to really notice what is around us, what’s happening, how our body feels. It takes no time; you could dedicate less than five minutes to this practice and still feel the benefit. You can even try it right now.

Bring your attention to how you are sitting. How does it feel? Is your foot falling asleep from crossing your legs? Uncross them, how does that feel? Notice your breathing; your heartbeat; the way your eyes move across each word on this page. Notice what’s on your desk. If you’re reading on your phone, bring awareness to what is just beyond your hand in the fuzziness beyond your perception. What do you hear? Can you hear traffic outside? Birds chirping? A humming heater? Your children playing? What smells are drifting in the air? Your own perfume? A smell of flowers or rain or coffee or dinner cooking.

How do you feel after stopping to truly notice and experience what is happening around you right now?

This is how we transcend into the realm of the miraculous through our physical experience. The physical itself is nothing without our attention. Without someone observing it, it is even less than 1%, it’s just a backdrop. But when we bring our consciousness to our present moment and everything it contains, it’s hard not to feel a subtle sense of wonder. And that’s just from the things we are able to perceive.

Louis Schwartzberg is a filmmaker famous for photographing the “imperceptible” beauty of nature. He uses time-lapse footage to capture slow-moving phenomena like how a mushroom grows, the constant movement of passenger planes across the United States, and weather patterns. He also uses high-speed cameras to catch the things that are too fast for us to perceive; the mechanics of a dragonfly’s wings as it flies, He captures microscopic life like the eggs of a butterfly, a caterpillar’s mouth,  and the eye of a fruit fly. There are so many things existing right alongside us that we will never see with our eyes.

As we continue holiday celebrations or head out on end-of-year vacations, looking forward to a brand-new year, take moments each day to get present and to notice the miracle of life all around you. We may be in the building and growing energy of the month of Capricorn, but this makes our ability to take a break and really look around an even more important ally.


This week, take as many breaks as you can to “smell the roses” and see how many new things you notice. What do you become freshly aware of as a result of simply looking? How does this practice of presence shift your inner life?

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