I hear the term mindfulness being bandied about in the media more and more these days, perhaps a clear indicator that, as a movement, the practice will soon be passé. It seems the word refers to everything from Buddhist meditative practices and health club Yoga exercises to smart phone apps that help to regulate blood pressure or breathing. Trendy among movie stars and athletes, mindfulness is even more so among businesses that strive to create a culture of creativity, self-empowerment, and dynamic energy among their workers. The idea is that people become more productive and fulfilled the more centered and attentive they are in their daily lives.
For me, mindfulness is best thought of as nothing more than a reminder that we need to slow down and pay attention. Pay attention to what we think and feel, how we respond to the people and events in our lives, and to our environment, particularly the natural world. It’s about presence, keeping things simple, developing a sense of calm or certainty. As David Hochman reported in the New York Times recently, “the desire is rampant for ‘non-doing’… What the culture is craving is a sense of ease and reflection, of not needing to be stimulated or entertained or going after something constantly. Nobody’s kicking out technology, but we have to regain our connection to others and to nature or else everybody loses.”
Enter Stony Brook. People come to Stony Brook for many reasons, but what they gain more than anything else is a measure of mindfulness. To that end, the day after one of our most recent snow storms I decided to venture out to the observation deck on the island with the goal of opening myself up to non-doing. After several hours of staring at the computer and answering phone calls and listening to day-campers screech, I sought refuge in solitude and trusted to the beneficence of the Sanctuary’s grounds.
I was not disappointed. Though I didn’t necessarily achieve some Zen state of mind, what I re-discovered is that the more life slows down, the more there is to see. The more one limits his field of view, the more it expands to reveal its essence. I was literally assaulted by colors and sounds. Snow that was at once brilliant white became furrowed with gray and then shimmered in ice blue. A deck railing of weathered pine, indistinct from the background trees, glowed with a neon blue swatch over drug-laced graffiti. Trees that appeared simply brown or black revealed swirls of green moss and blotches of lichen, patches of beige and knots of dark purple.
Looking closer, I saw a litany of storied romances carved into the rail. Ethan and Nancy together for keeps. RLB’s love for KAC lasting forever. A tree trunk’s gnarly bole suddenly revealed itself to be an ancient birdhouse, long abandoned it seemed for a more comfortable home. Tufts of loosestrife burst forth from the ice as if the ancient headdress of a mythical goddess below. A single beech leaf encased in alabaster snow seemed more a wall hanging than an accident of Nature, other leaves strewn haphazardly along the trail perhaps by Hansel and Gretel to find their way home.
And in the background a steady and subdued rush of wind or hum of traffic or roar of a locomotive. It was never clear the source. Nor did the sound ever diminish except when punctuated by the incessant chirp of a lonely titmouse, looking for its mate or simply re-asserting its presence. And overlooking it all a sentinel water tower in the distance, stolid blue with snow-capped top, determined to fulfill its duty regardless of the chaos at its feet.
Then all at once the cold air numbed my fingers, and spits of snow in the air flew in my face, perhaps urging me to follow the well-beaten track back to the Nature Center where, interestingly, I was eager for human contact, energized now for the daily routine, more open to humor and the warmth of indoors. Mindfulness? Inner peace? Self-awareness? Had I achieved any of it? I didn’t know. Nor did it matter. It was time well-spent.