The idea of cultivating full awareness of every instant owed much to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers of antiquity. One of Montaigne's favourites, Seneca, wrote that life runs through our fingers like water. We cannot stem the flow, but we can drink deeply while it is there. Philosophy helps to remind us to do this. It works like the mynah birds in Aldous Huxley's novel Island, which are trained to fly around all day calling "Attention! Attention!" and "Here and now!" The pages of Montaigne's book were his mynah birds. So determined was he to squeeze out every drop of his life's experience that he had a long-suffering servant wake him repeatedly in the middle of the night, so he could catch a glimpse of his own sleep as it left him. No wonder the 20th-century philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty described Montaigne as someone who put "a consciousness astonished at itself at the core of human existence".
Montaigne liked to say that the Essays were a casual pursuit, thrown on paper in idle hours. But at times he confessed to the difficulties of this discipline of attention and astonishment. "It is a thorny undertaking, and more so than it seems, to follow a movement so wandering as that of our mind, to penetrate the opaque depths of its innermost folds."
As he got older and realised that the life remaining to him could not be of great length, he exerted himself even more. "I try to increase it in weight," he wrote, "I try to arrest the speed of its flight by the speed with which I grasp it ... The shorter my possession of life, the deeper and fuller I must make it." At every moment, he brought himself back to himself. "When I walk alone in the beautiful orchard, if my thoughts have been dwelling on extraneous incidents for some part of the time, for some other part I bring them back to the walk, to the orchard, to the sweetness of this solitude, and to me."
The result was an almost Zen-like presence of mind in the moment. . . .
Read the rest here: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/jun/14/montaigne-philosophy.