On mindfulness

Hiking at Carpenter Falls

Yesterday I went for a hike at the Carpenter Falls land trust, about ten miles down Skaneateles Lake in the town of Niles. I was with two of my brothers and my nephew. We had fun, jumping from rock to rock, crossing logs laid over the creek, swinging from heavy vines and looking under rocks for salamanders. We were probably pretty noisy, traipsing through the woods, splashing and shouting. But one of the things I love to do when I’m in a place like Carpenter Falls is take a moment or two to look around and practice mindfulness.

Watch the water as it falls from the cliff above and crashes into the pool below. To listen to the water getting louder and louder and you get closer, making your way down the hill. To see the way it swirls in pools, catching leaves and sticks. The way the sun light dances its way through the canopy of leaves. To see how water has carved the rock over thousands of years. To take a deep breath and smell fresh air. Mindfulness is being aware in the moment of what’s around without allowing yourself to be dominated by your thoughts. It’s not that you completely put them out of your mind, but that you’re able to almost look at them from outside yourself. It may only be for a moment, but I find it helps me process my thoughts and emotions, particularly negative ones, when I can be present in a moment. There’s a clarity that I get that puts problems into perspective and reassures me that I can handle things.

I mentioned last week that I’m reading Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion by Sam Harris. Yesterday after I got home from the hike I had a few hours of downtime, so I went to the front porch to read. One of the sections of the book I got through while I was out there concerned mindfulness and mediation. As a religious skeptic Harris tries to untangle meditation as a practice from some of the implications it has as part of Eastern tradition, particularly Buddhism, and to put it into a more straightforward context as a method to achieve mindfulness. I’ve never really practiced meditation, but mindfulness, as I’ve described above, is something that I try to obtain, for lack of a better word, as part of treating my depression and anxiety.

My therapist and I discuss mindfulness as part of our typical weekly conversation. Usually it’s in the context of “I was feeling anxious because of X, so I tried to focus on the moment and become mindful of the big picture.” Sometimes it works in the moment, sometimes it’s hard to achieve that kind of state once my anxiety has already started building. In some ways it’s like accidentally letting the cat out when he needs to be in- sometimes I can get him, sometimes he makes a bee-line for the shrubs and is gone. When I’m aware of the cat’s potential to escape, I’m more cautious about opening the door and on the lookout for him, and he almost never gets out. I’d like to be able to do that with my anxiety and depression. If I can be more mindful of my thoughts and emotions I can keep them in check rather than try and catch them and rein them in.

Meditation seems like a way to improve mindfulness and practice it on a more consistent basis. Like I’ve said, I’ve never really practiced meditation before but Harris lays out a starting point in the book. It may seem silly, but at one point the book directs you to put it down and close your eyes for sixty seconds and focus on your breathing. So there I was on the porch, eyes closed, and book on my lap, listening to my own breath. It *was* relaxing. I read a few more chapters before heading inside, but I’m going to try meditation this week, to set some time aside that will be quiet without a lot of activity, and follow the guidelines in the book. Hopefully I’ll be able to achieve that mindfulness that can be so helpful to me.

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