09/13/2013 04:09 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

The Forest for the Trees

I wrote something a little while ago on an overnight bus in Vietnam about living in the present and trying to appreciate the things in life that we take for granted. I sent it to someone and they said that it's easy for me to write things like that from a place of privilege, that being able to live the relatively carefree existence I do that allows for these minute appreciations is a luxury only very few can afford. When I first thought about this I felt really guilty. Sh*t. I'm an a**hole. Then I thought about it again later and realized that we both had it backwards.

When I lived in Senegal, I shared a hut and a sleeping mat for a week with a 19-year-old man named Babacar. He will definitely never read this. I stayed with him because he was one of the few people in the village who spoke French, and the night I got there we spent forty-five minutes squatting in his hut looking by candlelight at pictures of his friends and his soccer teams that he kept in a stack under his hat. He prefaced every picture with "mon ami." We fell asleep laughing about nothing, me speaking my second language, him speaking his third.

The next morning he introduced me to his son, Boobacar (the Senegalese aren't terribly creative with their names), and us and half the village sat under a tree drinking hyper-sweet tea for the next seven hours. We laughed, played jokes and dozed. People filtered in and out. A man inexplicably built a concrete edifice in between two huts. The moments moved slowly but the hours ticked by. What made me think of Babacar after thinking about my friend's response is that his key to happiness in the face of a life in which "life beyond the village" is unlikely, is finding joy in this moment, the time it takes to inhale and exhale. That first sip of instant coffee in the morning, his son imitating the funny sounds he would make to him, a smile from his lover, his sisters laughing by the fire at night. The things we remember as we know we're about to die. I didn't have to be able to travel halfway across the world and backpack around with no plan in particular to begin to appreciate these moments. I just had to realize their worth.

Living in the information-saturated world that we live in, it is much more of a choice. The choice where to put my focus, my energy, my attention, when there are so many things to think about and do and get accomplished. It is harder to truly savor a sharing a good laugh with your dad when you're thinking that you need to get passport photos and your phone is vibrating and you're thinking about a girl and you just got an email and the conflict in Syria and whether or not we might be half-human/half-machine in 20 years. At least that's what I think about, and it is an active choice to try and turn my brain off and instead appreciate the timbre of my dad's voice, the way his eyes smile with his mouth and the gratifyingly creative way he uses cuss words. These are the moments I want to remember. These are the moments we can all choose to remember.

For more by Ari Andersen, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.