After the Storm: Mindfulness

P1090580I 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. P1090581

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. P1090578

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.

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A holiday walk upon the Sanctuary

There is no death... only life!

There is no death… only life!

I didn’t know what to expect. I thought that I might suddenly be inspired or be besieged by deep thoughts about life and Nature. Impulses of the restless energy so characteristic of my early life had stirred me enough to get off my seat and out on to the trail. But I didn’t know for what. Thanksgiving, the holidays, my body sated with food and family and long hours of preparation followed by a sudden letdown of expectation and a fear of loss – these provided the backdrop and initial incentive. It was, however, the low slant of winter light reflecting off the dried out grass… the rush of arctic air seeping through the thresholds and window sash, that finally moved me.

I walked the trail hoping that it would talk to me, that I would once again by prompted to see a glimpse of the infinite variety that is always available. The price of seeing, though, is to lose oneself in the present moment, to put aside past reveries (doubts and glories) and future dreams (anticipations or anxieties), and simply allow life to course through the body unimpeded. When I could do that, it was exhilarating.

I discovered that we are surrounded by death, that it stares at us solemnly and stoically and reverently, perhaps knowing we will join it soon enough. As I strolled the path, I was first struck by the sawn off carcass of tree trunk, or branch thick enough to have had its own life, which watched me intently as if it somehow were a body pulled aside so that the foot traffic could move by efficiently. It was on full display, a kind of still-life, caught in the middle of an action, left there to reveal how quickly life ends. It seemed to lift an arm up to each passer-by, waving. No shame. No regrets. Comforted by the light, it asked only that the sun keep reflecting warmth upon its being as it broke down into the soil, the old stone wall set up by the millworkers its comforter and marker, its break from the chill.

As I walked, countless images of ghoulish creatures rose up from the dead, out from the marshes and beneath the black ice, before me. Alligator trunks stalked the shoreline; dead fish hung from branches, flapping in the wind on casting lines that had gone astray. Wood duck boxes, miniature robots, square-jawed and armless, stood frozen in their last steps like zombies just released from the grave. Dried out branches, tufts of grasses, scratched their brittle fingers across the ice which looked like the shiny skin of a dead seal stretched out across the landscape. Everywhere around me, dark browns, black and blues, hollowed out beige, foliage stripped of its former summer life. Then I heard a rustling. A steady, nervous chattering of leaves in the background, the wind rattling through the boney limbs of oak trees. And I awoke from my stupor.

Red berries hung suspended from branches, their juices tempting and available for any creature to eat. Clear blue sky and white wisps of clouds floated above me and then miraculously beneath the black ice simultaneously. The sky above, heaven beneath our feet! And I learned that, even in death, we are surrounded by life, that life and death flow into each other seamlessly, Nature making no real distinction between them. At the first spillway two wood ducks flashed before my eyes, lifting up from a small patch of open water when they saw me as an intruder, their emerald green necks brilliant and scintillating. Then, when danger was no longer imminent, they alighted once more, joyfully splashing down upon their playground, bobbing their heads, gleeful to be left alone to their winter games. Behind them two adult swans slipped their necks deep down into the water, no doubt feeding off the continuous flow of plant life and energy that sped through their webbed feet.

“I am alive again,” I thought. And again. Nature restores itself continuously. As do we. The essential heat is always there, darkness folding into light, stillness moved to a gallop, despair and loss driven out by new bounty. We only have to pay attention to see this simple principle by which we live acted out so effortlessly. Bring on the New Year! Bring on new challenges and dreams! We control the pace by which we live. We invent reality. Out of poverty, we can create riches.

Photo courtesy of Al Jesness