Last updated on 1st November 2014
In her wonderful poem "The summer day", Mary Oliver wrote:
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?
A couple of years' ago I went back to revisit my old university. It was an exercise in "emotional archaeology" and it triggered a cascade of memories, emotions & intentions. I wrote about it extensively. One of the blog posts was "Going back for a university reunion: self-esteem, hallucinogens, wonder & the transpersonal", where I said "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 last of that series of six blog posts - "Emotional archaeology unearths a treasure trove of insights & new directions" - I said that I wanted to experiment 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 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 that you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" This poem still chokes me up ... and kind of makes my hair stand on end too. I've done a couple of these days over the subsequent months - "A day spent idle and blessed: report of an experiment" and "A day spent 'idle & blessed': revisiting an experiment - savouring & 'positive state mindfulness'" Today is the third ... out of the door for eight hours with no plan ... "Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to be."
Starting out this morning with no plan ... not even knowing which way I'd turn as I came out of our front door. And my feet lead me out in a kind of spiral. Finding myself back at the flats my mother lived in for twenty years when she came to Edinburgh after my father died in 1989. Strolling. Autumn sunlight. So beautiful, so poignant. And out to Morningside, to the street where my father was brought up 100 years ago. I used to visit my aunt as a child when she was still living here in the 1950's. Walking through the Edinburgh districts. Walking through the generations. Crisscrossing up & down, taking paths & backstreets that I've never visited before. And here's the wonderful Blackford Hill. The observatory. The packed gorse bushes where my mother brought my son to walk & play when he was a child. Dried seed heads, blackberries, lovely hip & haw berries. My body softening. Stumbling through the years. Dog barking. Squirrel listening. A different sense of time here with the small animals. And different pace as well with the trees ... and hugely more so with rocks, the volcanic eruption that grew Blackford Hill, and the gouging ice that fashioned the surrounding valleys.
Ritchie & Bryant - in their paper "Positive state mindfulness: A multidimensional model of mindfulness in relation to positive experience" - comment "The present research ... indicated that a three-factor model (Focused Attention, Novelty Appreciation, Open-Ended Expectations) fit the data well and explained responses better than a one-factor model." Later in the paper they write "We hope that researchers seek to identify specific characteristics of positive events that promote states of positive mindfulness. For example, situational elements of uncertainty, spontaneity, novelty, complexity, surprise, inspiration, awe, nostalgia, and the absence of distraction may enhance the tendency to be mindful as positive experiences are unfolding."
Slowing down. I'm to be out of the house for eight hours ... and there's nothing to achieve. Normally I'm so busy, so counting the minutes like a miser. Here's wealth today. 8 hours of plenty. A cafe. Meeting a man with eight dogs in his car. Seeing someone I know. And still the crisscrossing of familiar districts and streets I've never walked down before. Precious. This pavement walked by my father and my son, my mother and my wife. These berries coming & going year by year. This robin, perky, curious, archetypal, universal, an "every bird" just like I'm an "every man". Walking through Kings' Buildings, the Edinburgh university science site. I've never been here before. Youth. Exploration. Research. And the words of Jackson Browne's beautiful song "For a dancer" go through my head "Perhaps a better world is drawing near. Just as easily it could all disappear along with whatever meaning you might have found."
And eating lunch at Earthy ... a plate of four salads. Late September and I'm eating outside in the sunlight. Flowers and dried grasses and the sound of a pigeon. Reconnecting to an innocence ... that secret garden door that's always there to be walked through, if only I slow down enough to notice it. Ritchie & Bryant's "Positive state mindfulness" ... focused attention, novelty appreciation, and open-ended expectation. Somehow that feels a useful but pedestrian way of putting it. Be here now. Appreciation & gratitude. Open to the universe. Walking back along side-streets. Sitting on a bench, quietly being, watching, life going by. And turning down into the Astley Ainslie hospital grounds. My mother came here unwell, my cousin worked here, my son played here. Memory, images, movements in my chest. And walking on. Slowly. No hurry. Looking. Using methods to quieten in ways that remind me of days in the desert - see the 2009 post "Holiday, friendship & 'meditation retreat'". Meeting someone I know and chatting a little. Walking through the cemetry off Balcarres Street and round to stroll (for the first time) along the south east side of Craiglockhart Pond. Through to the canal, watching the rowers, and home a little over eight hours since I left. Such a day ... emptying the day somehow making it fuller.
In their paper on "The relationship between a balanced time perspective and subjective well-being", Ryan Howell & colleagues underline how a balanced perspective is associated with higher wellbeing. MedicalXpress quote Howell saying "If you are too extreme or rely too much on any one of these perspectives (focus on past, present, or future), it becomes detrimental, and you can get into very destructive types of behaviors. It is best to be balanced in your time perspectives." While it may seem obvious that people who have a positive attitude about their past, enjoy the present, and focus on goals for the future would be the happiest, Howell said that a sense of well-being depends on the balance between these elements. "If you're really dominant in one type of perspective, you're very limited in certain situations," he added. "To deal well when you walk into any situation, you need to have cognitive flexibility. That is probably why people with a balanced time perspective are happiest. There is some evidence that people can "rebalance" their time perspectives," Howell said, while noting that "there hasn't been a lot of work that's tried to change time perspectives explicitly." But in general, "if you're too future-oriented, it might be good to give yourself a moment to sit back and enjoy the present," Howell suggested. "If you're too hedonistic and living for the moment, maybe it's time to start planning some future goals."
Well that's been eight hours "rebalancing" for me and I know how this can echo on into the days ahead. And as a contrast, see too the post "Practising 'doing': autonomy, values & 'driving the bus'".