(I found Christopher Weyant's cartoon in July 28, 2014 The New Yorker when I was already contemplating mindfulness and the terms frequent misuse by whoever in society is lucky enough to have the time to think about such things.)
I understand mindfulness as the awareness and balance of personal action and larger reaction. Things and thoughts and other people come and go, and one tries to be both true to oneself and engender as compassionate reactions rippling out from oneself as possible. The word gets thrown around a lot in circles I dip in and out of—we are all suddenly attentive to “being mindful” of our relationships to the world and “being present.” We meditate, we practice yoga, we talk about the intentions we put into the universe, we squeeze our carbon footprints into smaller and smaller shoes, and so on.
There is much good reality and potential here.
When I think deeply and deliberately about all the ways that a single moment of my life is tied to, responsible to, and the product of any number of complex relationships, interactions, and reactions—ecological, chemical, biologic, industrial, political, familial, emotional, cultural, personal, etc.—I am absolutely overcome. Not always in a bad or overwhelming way—it is a beautiful and complex world with as glorious and bizarre a past as a future and I am absolutely delighted to be so much a part of it all, to be connected in so many ways.
Yet, when I go down my rabbit holes of connectivity, where I try to muddle out how be in ways that are truest and kindest and most in keeping with my moral compass, I find that I am playing out a thousand and one “what-if” scenarios, and doing historic math backwards to understand how I arrived where I am with the choices before me at any particular time. This all can snowball to the point where I am not alert and in the present moment, where I am, instead, thousands of miles away thinking of fuel stations being blown up in Gaza while I drive in my car, or seven generations in the future hoping that the repercussions of how I live will not have made theirs impossible, or putting my interpretation of the complex needs of others before my own whims.
There are good merits in all those avenues of thought and action I believe.
And opposite from fostering connections to things beyond my immediate scope is being present, trying to both live fully and savor the acts of doing so. This provides a particular vibrancy and appreciative joy. I like a few quiet moments to check myself to sit still, look around, and take stock of how I am at any moment in the world and the space where I am. The chugging trains of connectivity, stories and theories of origins and destinations of any piece of the moment melt out of focus and the sum total of what I can absorb in the moment comes a little clearer. Usually, that boils down to seeing the people around me more deeply as the authors of their own stories and not characters in mine, and the fact that everywhere has a little beauty in it. My head and heart are often too busy to be still, to be quietly present is not my first nature. Yet, I do see the merit and I try to make that time. It provides perspective, and the space around the heart to fall a little more in love with the world and whatever part I play in it.
However, despite all this goodness, there is a sharp side of me that finds grains selfish oblivion in all the mindfulness and a hint of isolationist egotism in valuing “being present” above living in any other tense. I spent forty-five minutes on a train recently, listening to a woman bray at length about how she is trying to be mindful in her relationships. Apparently, strangers don’t count as people to be mindful of. I am easily frustrated by people who prioritize being present, but have the memories of goldfish, as if the lofty attempt to be present absolves them of listening deeply and retaining others’ words. I do not believe that our own quests for enlightenment trump the need to be kind and to live into the truth that our lives impact, if not the world, the lives of those close to us.
Mostly, though, what I cannot figure out is how to be at once mindful of my actions in the world—and the equal and opposite reactions that Newton promises—and fully awake to the present. These seem like opposite forces and I get stymied in my attempts to reconcile them and move forward into the world.
Fortunately, I work on a farm, which abounds with living examples of balances and transitions and how the present moment truly is a bit different from whatever came before and whatever comes next. When things seem to change so quickly—covercrops mowed down to be tilled, to be shaped into new beds, to be planted, weeded, thinned, tended, harvested, mowed again and so the cycle goes until the season is over and the land is retired and tucked up for winter—it becomes easier to see the immediate preciousness of each stage, and also the interactions, reactions and transitions between each phase.
Or, it would be easy to see those things, to place each plant in mindful context, if there were time to look up from the pressing needs of almost each moment of the actual present.
I begin to think that the only what anything in this world functions is the interaction of contradictory forces in balance with each other. I sat by the ocean recently and watched the sailboats go by, all wind and water balanced for forward momentum. I am reading a book where a peg-legged captain stalks his ship with footsteps of life and death. I think of bike gears, toothily grinding against each other, or the absorptions and interactions of heat and sunlight to become electricity and eggplant. Of heartbeats and footsteps and seasonal constellations.
The most beautiful things I know are in that sweet spot of tension between opposites, what pulls apart and pushes forward and onward. When I start to wonder how to possibly go on with the weight of the past, the unknown of the future, and the beauty and terror of the present, with the pull of the personal along side the push of not being alone in the world, well, I need only to open my eyes, take a deep breath, and act accordingly.
(As a side note, if the economy is to actually improve mindfully—the local ice cream shop traded my farm cucumbers and dill for ice cream this week. Two locally owned businesses, exchanging their goods within a five miles of each other, enhancing a good community relationship and agreeing that something other than numbers can be currency…I believe we are both present for, heirs of and en route towards something grand.)