07/23/2014 11:06 am ET Updated Sep 22, 2014

My $900 Lesson in Mindfulness

Shutterstock / April Cat

It was a few days after my birthday. I'd been working on my laptop from my couch, but moved it to the kitchen table while I grabbed a snack.

The rest of the details are blurry.

The cut-and-dry (pun intended) version is that I bumped a glass containing about 10 oz. of water, and as it spilled, the water made one of those epic arcs that movies like to show you in slow motion, before deliberately splashing all over my computer.

How could this have happened? Could I really be that much of a klutz? So much for the happy birthday haze...

I promptly hopped in the subway and took my computer to an authorized Apple repair shop, but it was no use. Nothing could be done in the immediate: the inside was flooded and fried (perhaps I should have turned it off sooner, but I really wanted to try to get one last backup!). The only thing left to do was to send my computer to Apple for a full-on refurbish... to the tune of $900. I handed over my credit card and gulped down the repercussions of my momentary mental/physical awareness blip.

In the week that I was without my computer, I did a lot of thinking.

I thought about how I handled the spill after-the-fact, and realized that all of the self-flagellation in the world ("I don't know how it happened! I'm so stupid! I break everything! I screw everything up!") wouldn't change the fact that a spill had happened, and I needed to deal with it one way or another. I could either be kind to myself, or I could beat myself up; but, the former option was certainly kinder and didn't make an already not-great situation even more unpleasant.

I realized that one's ability to learn a lesson was not, as habit would have me believe, proportional to the amount of suffering we do in the wake of our mistakes.

We can absorb a lesson in all its grace and glory from a place of inner peace and still allow it inform our thoughts and actions moving forward.

I also became aware of how I had come to use my computer. It wasn't just something I used for work, but a mealtime companion when I ate alone at home--a habit rooted in a childhood of many meals in front of the television and adapted in college when I gave up my unlimited cafeteria meal plan because I believed that I could feed myself on a diet of peanut butter and jelly, pita and hummus, and Amy's Organics frozen meals for less money than I spent at the cafeteria's all-you-can-eat buffet priced to feed a college-aged boy... some of whom were 6'7" basketball players. While Carrie Bradshaw and her gaggle of gal pals were eating at the local diner, I was eating at my dorm room desk. It was a friendly, frivolous break from the piles of black-and-white texts (not of the cellphone variety).

By the time of the spill, with the advent of YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, and TED Talks, my computer held within a land of unending information and entertainment. There were also blogs, newspapers, and, of course, social networks.

...All this, plus my actual work. Blog posts. Book writing. Online courses. SAT/ACT coaching sessions via Skype. It's a common tale for people today. Somewhere between the laptop, the tablet, and the smartphone, technology became not just something to expedite our lives, but an integral part of our lives, helping us to feel smarter, engaged, entertained, and connected.

I realized that the spill on my computer and the cost of restoring it to working order could be seen as a punishment for my moment of carelessness, or I could treat it as a $900 lesson in mindfulness. There were certainly meditation retreats and classes that would cost me about that much (if not more). But they would also require an investment of time.

What if the spill and its respective price tag were like pulling off a BandAid: quick and stings a little, but sufficient to remove a layer of armor I had built between myself and... well, in this case, myself?

Even once my computer was returned to me (as good as ever, warranty intact), I stopped using it at meals. I stopped taking it to bed for late night Hulu viewings of last night's celebrity interviews or even (ironically) spiritual talks about mindfulness. I still watch, I still read, but it isn't my default. It's a choice, rather than something I do simply because it's what I've been doing. I'd had inklings that the way I used my computer wasn't necessarily the most nurturing or useful, but sometimes it takes a lesson, potent and specific, to really cut to the truth of the matter in a way that almost relentlessly demands us to pay attention.

Of course, being conscious of the lessons was a choice, too.

Each lesson I learned in the great computer flooding of 2014 was one that I showed up for in the same way that I showed up to my college classes. I could just as easily have reverted back to my previous thought patterns of guilt, shame, and punishment, quickly followed by returning to the old habits that had created the issue in the first place. But, I chose awareness, and I stayed open to every lesson that the experience had to teach me.

I tell you this story not as a warning to treat your computer with caution around liquids. Though, if it helps you to realize that you may want to reassess the way you relate to your computer or your technology habit of choice, all the better. Maybe your mindfulness lesson needn't cost $900.

Rather, I tell you this story as an illustration of what happens when you stay open to the lessons of life and the transformations that can ensue by simple availability, attention, and willingness. I've honestly never felt more grounded than I have in the weeks subsequent to dousing my computer.

Standardized tests can kind of suck, but they are also an opportunity. The offer their own lessons in mindfulness. They can be lessons in patience, fortitude, dedication, creativity, and engagement. They can be challenges in which you compete against yourself while working with yourself, just as you would at a CrossFit gym or yoga studio or writers group.

What I wish for you is the willingness to stay open to the lessons--all of the lessons, not just the ones about math or grammar--that standardized test preparation has to offer. By developing a habit of openness, you will start to see lessons all over your life, not just at your desk. And, each lesson is there to bring you to a more grounded, centered, loving place. Believe it or not.

Erika Oppenheimer is an SAT and ACT test prep coach. She works with students from across the country on a mindful approach to test prep.

For more great resources from Erika, including her free Organize Your Test Prep e-mail and PDF series, visit