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A day spent "idle and blessed": report of an experiment

In the words of Mary Oliver's beautiful poem "The summer day":

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean -
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down -
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

And that's what I did today ... I explored being "idle and blessed".  Why?  Well, a couple of months ago I went back to Cambridge for a reunion ... the first time I've ever been back to school or university for such a thing.  It was an experiment in "emotional archaeology" and I wrote a series of blog posts about it.  At one stage I experimented with a dialogue between the 22 year old and the current 62 year old versions of me.  In the post "Going back for a university reunion: self-esteem, hallucinogens, wonder & the transpersonal", I wrote "I changed subject too from philosophy to medicine (in 1970).   Life speeded up and gradually I see now that so much of that wonder, that waking to be "blessed", so much of that has ebbed away in the course of what has in many other ways been a life that I have felt immensely grateful for.  And in the acted out dialogue between my younger and my current self, that's what emerged. A reminder of what I had forgotten."  In the last post of the sequence - "Going back for a university reunion: emotional archaeology unearths a treasure trove of insights & new directions" - I talked about a whole series of fascinating possibilities that had emerged from revisiting the past like this.  One comment I made was: "How about the reminders from my student to my current self? There's potentially an awful lot here. Options include ... experimenting with taking a day every so often when I explore "just being", a bit as I did in those old ecstatic pilgrimages to Trinity Fellows Garden. I want to remember Mary Oliver's words "I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention ... how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I intend to explore making more time for "strolling through the fields ... all day ... (in this) one wild and precious life."  I came close to death back in April, spending two hours trapped on a steep snow chute that exited over a cliff.  It certainly highlighted my values & priorities as I waited to see if Mountain Rescue would get to me in time. 


Working hard to achieve significant future goals that are self-chosen and in line with our values is typically associated with increased wellbeing.  See the two posts on "Targeting behavioural activation better both for decreasing depression and increasing wellbeing" for an introduction to the wealth of research supporting the value of "skilful doing".  But it isn't a surprise that balance, a middle way involving both "doing" and "being" is likely to be associated with optimum wellbeing - see "A question of balance: Time perspective and well-being in British and Russian samples" with the researchers' comment that "Four distinct time perspective patterns were discovered in both samples: future-oriented, present-oriented, balanced and negative. The clusters revealed significant differences in well-being, with members of the BTP (balanced time perspective) cluster demonstrating the highest scores in both samples."  And just last month Livingstone & Srivastava published "Up-regulating positive emotions in everyday life: Strategies, individual differences, and associations with positive emotion and well-being" with the abstract reading "This research aimed to identify strategies people use to up-regulate positive emotions, and examine associations with personality, emotion regulation, and trait and state positive experience. In Study 1, participants reported use of 75 regulation strategies and trait emotional experience. Principal component analysis revealed three strategy domains: engagement (socializing, savoring), betterment (goal pursuit, personal growth), and indulgence (substance use, fantasy). In Study 2, participants reported state-level regulation and emotional experience. Engagement correlated with greater state and trait positive emotion, and overall greater well-being. Betterment correlated with less state, but greater trait, positive emotion. Indulgence correlated with greater state, but less trait positive emotion and overall lower well-being. This research suggests trade-offs between short-term and long-term emotional consequences of different strategies."  This question of balance nudges into the debate about the relative value of "eudaimonia" and "hedonism" that I explored in much more detail in a report I wrote from the European Positive Psychology Conference a couple of years ago. 

And that's what remembering myself as an Arts student had highlighted when I revisited university earlier this autumn.  Doing and being could benefit from a bit of rebalancing in my life.  So this morning I left the house at about 9.30am.  Such a beautiful, champagne, sunny, frozen November day.  Bicycling and walking.  "Footloose".  Not really knowing where I was going ... and that was fine.  As Ritchie & Bryant found in "Positive state mindfulness: A multidimensional model of mindfulness in relation to positive experience", three factors seem to link mindfulness to positive experience - "Focused Attention, Novelty Appreciation, (and) Open-Ended Expectations."  So not really knowing where I was going to end up, I found myself eventually in St Mary's Cathedral.  So lovely that one can just walk in off the street.  Sitting in a side chapel ... a "chapel of remembrance".  The long columns of names ... people who had been killed in the 1914/18 war.  Heart aching.  Praying/meditating.  Deeply peaceful.  And then coming out into the sunshine.  Remembering that there is a complementary medicine centre close by. 

view of cathedral from waiting room 

(view back to the cathedral through the waiting room window of the complementary medical centre)

I drop in and ask if there is anyone offering massage.  I've never paid for a professional massage in my life, but now I had an hour's quiet, centering, gentle "dance".  Hardly speaking.  Being with the sensations.  And thanks and out to my bike again.  There's the Gallery of Modern Art.  An exhibition of Samuel John Peploe's work ... "the most successful of the Scottish colourists".  Sitting in the Gallery Cafe.  The pretty, tired-looking waitress brings my food.  A slight Irish-sounding accent.  "Here we are.  Sorry for the wait."  Pasta topped with gently acidic, viscous tasting rocket.  And I begin talking with the old lady sitting at the little table beside me.  And just in front of me is another old lady, eating soup with shaking arthritic hands.  Now she sits with her hands on her lap under the table.  She is lively, laughing happily, chatting vivaciously with her two friends.  Conversations trilling, intertwining around me.  And the exhibition.  Precious.

Out into the sunshine again.  There's a big sign up on the lawn ... one of the more permanent exhibits it seems.  It reads "There will be no miracles here".   They're wrong; there are miracles here all the time.  And to the Botanic Gardens.  Strolling.  Ambling.  Gently close to tears.  A wedding reception in one of the fine outer building.  A bagpiper playing.  Walking out into the less frequented sections of the garden ... as I did all those years ago as a 22 year old at university.  High on the November air.  "Idle and blessed".  Autumn buds!  Joy & a soft heart.  And the bicycle.  Heading up through town in the light-twinkling dusk.  To a cafe by St Giles on the Royal Mile.  I haven't been into this cafe probably since we came here with the children twenty or so years ago.  Drinking orange, mango & cinnamon tea and eating a Florentin biscuit for old time's sake.  And then home again.  Cycling through the Meadows and along the canal path.  So precious to be alive.  So grateful.  "Everything is and almost bursts with being so."  An experiment with "being" in this surging, so appreciated, sea of "doing".

As Basho wrote in his masterpiece "The narrow road to the deep North":

"So - when was it - I drawn like blown cloud, couldn't stop dreaming of roaming, roving the coast up and down."

and ... "every day is a journey, and the journey itself home."

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