|My brother David walked around my garden noticing things with a camera in hand.|
Weekends feel different to me even though it’s been fourteen years since I had a regular job and weekdays were workdays. Still I have an ingrained expectation that Saturdays are for leisure, fun, projects, and opera; Sundays are for honoring God, nurturing my spirit, and being with family. So it was that one recent Saturday morning I picked up a New York magazine and began to work the crossword puzzle. I was zipping through it until suddenly I hit an intersection of clues that I couldn’t navigate. I called Robin’s house to ask if they knew a five-letter word for fungi for fermenting. They’re into all kinds of cooking and beer making, so I thought I was going to the source. However, Tammy didn’t know and Robin was out walking. After ten or fifteen minutes of trying this and that, and filling in a few letters, I discovered the correct answer just as the phone was ringing. Robin was inviting me to come on down for a cup of tea. When I arrived I said to them both, “Oh, by the way, the fungi for fermenting is yeast.” Robin dove for his one-volume encyclopedia, which he keeps at hand, saying, “I thought yeast was bacteria.” In seconds he was reading aloud about yeast (which is indeed fungi) and when he finished we all had the satisfaction of knowing.
After tea, I took Nigel for a long, leisurely walk, letting him set the pace. When he stopped to sniff a particularly bushy weed, I didn’t give the leave it command, but waited until he was ready to move on. In the spirit of mindfulness, I studied Nigel as he continued his investigation, noting especially that his tail was still as he made a careful nasal examination of the leaves, and then it started slowly wagging as, with his head down, he followed the trail through a little opening in the foliage to a clearing just inside the edge of the woods. There he must have found the mother lode of scent. His tail wagged at full speed, his little body was on stiff-legged alert, his head moved rapidly back and forth, and, nose to the ground, he was sniffing out the interloper or at least gathering a full dossier. When he finished he turned to rejoin me with a quick step. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, I’ll admit that I thought his whole demeanor radiated satisfaction. Now he knew! My mind left the woods for a moment and raced down the hill to Robin and Tammy’s little house, and I smiled at the thought of Robin’s wonderful curiosity (defined as a strong desire to know or learn). Their house is full of reference books, and in addition, Robin makes good use of his ability to find on-line explanations for almost anything.
There is, I believe, a direct line from mindfulness to being aware to noticing and from there to curiosity. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who is the foremost exponent of mindfulness, describes the process as “the ability to be aware of what is going on inside us and around us.”* I first knew of this wise monk from the Vietnam War protest movement and recognized his name when it came up during the meditation aspect of the Jon Kabat-Zinn stress reduction classes I took in 2005. (Kabat-Zinn built his program on the healing power of mindfulness.) I immediately bought several of Nhat Hanh’s books and studied them. Although they provided a clear description of the practice, I found it difficult to still the many thoughts that bounced around in my head like popping corn. After many months of trying to be mindful both during periods of meditation and in daily living, eventually it clicked into place and became a part of me.
Keeping yourself aware of right now reduces the stress of revisiting regrets from the past or anxieties about the future. As you stay present to the moment you notice more, and the practice will then increase your compassion for others, for the Earth, and for your own surroundings. One of the psychological pitfalls of aging—especially if you live alone—is a preoccupation with your own health and wellbeing. I have discovered that practicing mindfulness counteracts the focus on my physical issues by providing ongoing information about my body, how it works and what it needs. Instead of worrying about that nagging pain the middle of my back, I am aware when it starts and consciously relax my shoulders.
Here’s an example of how this approach works. First thing each day—after I’ve stretched a bit and had a glass of water—Nigel and I go out for our early-morning constitutional. The progression of mindfulness begins by first bringing my awareness to my self in this moment, taking in personal information: how I’m walking, where I’m looking, what thoughts are clamoring for my attention. Then consciously letting go of that investigation, I turn my mind to right now. I am aware of Nigel’s presence and any debris on the road that might cause me to turn my ankle, but I’m also mindfully sensing the day: the coolness of first light, the smell of moist earth, foliage, cigarette smoke lingering in the air after a car passes with the window open, a whiff of skunk. I hear the sound of the river as it rushes over the rocks, and near the meadow I notice the raucous tattoo of the crows and the obbligato of the songbirds. Sometimes I hear the wind or a rooster waking up. Even with a conscious effort to stay in the moment, the mind can absorb an amazing amount of data. All those observations, fully noticed, keep me from focusing on the pain in my leg, my sadness over the recent death of a friend, the state of the economy, or the latest mass murder. There is a time and a place in my life for the contemplation of such issues, but not while I’m out walking or later eating my breakfast with awareness and appreciation for the food.
In my first years of retirement my schedule was just as full as it had been on the job and I kept right on multi-tasking. I’m not quite sure how one applies mindfulness in the workplace except perhaps task by task. I came to this discipline after I had given up externally-oriented busyness to take care of Bill. When he died I was plunged into my own long illness. It was during that lonely time that I discovered this new way of being.
Curiosity has always been part of who I am, and I too make good use of my dictionary, encyclopedia, and the speedy on-line services of Google. Now even though my weekdays are mostly filled with household chores and keeping myself healthy, exercised, and nourished I have plenty of time to look things up and still accomplish enough to make the weekends still feel special. One of the gifts of aging is having more Saturday-kind of leisure to learn and to know, and Sunday-kind of motivation to expand that curiosity to the spirit.
* Thich Nhat Hanh, Mindful Movements: Ten Exercises for Well-Being, Berkeley, CA, Parallax Press, 2008.