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Mindfulness with Both Hands

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view down grocery store aisle.

I was walking innocently through a grocery store the other day — safely behind my mask — when what should I see but a “mindfulness kit.” It was in one of those slick, shiny boxes, happily perched among the greeting cards and gift succulents.

(I will admit that it’s a prejudice, thinking that a grocery store can have birthday and anniversary cards but not a “mindfulness kit.” But there you have it. Guilty.)

There it was, a couple of aisles from the essential oils that promise peace and centeredness, the presence of which should have told me that a mindfulness kit could not be far behind.

No, I should not have been surprised: #mindfulness kits in grocery stores are very evocative of our age: people searching for ancient wisdom along with essential oils and organic whole grains. All in one place and attractively packaged.

The pandemic has created a space for introspection and interiority, two things that American consumer culture have long functioned to curtail. But, awash in an information deluge, feeling ourselves being overtaken by a 65-second attention span,* many of us are desperate enough for any hint of quiet introspection that an over-priced repackaging of information — information that is in fact pasted all over the world wide web — just might do the trick.

After this long, strange time, how can we reclaim our inner lives?

The answers are not mysterious. For people have always experienced time as somehow both magical and threatening.

Two thousand years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

Time is like a river made up of all the events that happen, and it is a violent flow, for as soon as a thing is seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this then too is carried away. (Meditations 4.43)

Thing is, time has always felt thus. Yes, time is a river. Often a violently flowing river. We experience life as it rushes by in a torrent.

The American poet Emily Dickinson wrote,

I felt my life with both my hands
To see if it was there . . . (#357)

I don’t journal. I don’t keep a diary. Never have. Neither am I particularly good at sitting still long enough for serious meditation. But I write some lines of poetry every day and have for something on the order of forty years. Writing poetry has long been my mindfulness practice.

It is a grounding activity. Sometimes I write in a notebook. Sometimes I use a laptop. But I write every day. At the beginning of the pandemic, I opened a new file and titled it “A Little Book About Making It Through the Day.” I wrote in it every day.

Sometimes a little. Sometimes a lot. The American writer Annie Dillard in her book titled The Writing Life, says,

How we spend our days is of course how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour and that one is what we are doing.

The philosopher Epictetus had a similar thought when he wrote, “Beautiful choices make a beautiful life.”

Life is a game of inches. And minutes / moments. So, I ground myself by writing every day. I keep in mind the work of Emily Dickinson, who, due to the circumstances of her life, spent a lot of time in quarantine. She learned to redirect her solitude into minute observation. Lines such as:

To be a Flower, is profound

Responsibility — . . . (#1058)

Or these lines:

I am afraid to own a Body —

I am afraid to own a Soul —

Profound — precarious Property —

Possession, not optional — . . . (#1090)

And another poet of the mundane who also had a wry sense of humor, W.H. Auden. He wrote these lines, for example:

Put the car away; when life fails,

What’s the good of going to Wales?

. . .

Artists get us down to the basics: on the floor in despair; so confused that it’s hard to sense our own bodies. Wishing the rush of events would just stop for a little while. Art gets inside those experiences and suggests to us how to survive.

. . .

In my veins there is a wish,

And a memory of fish:

When I lie crying on the floor,

It says, ‘You’ve often done this before.’

Here am I, here are you:

But what does it mean? What are we going to do?

(from “It’s No Use Raising a Shout”)

OK. I’ll stop harping on the glossy mindfulness box in the grocery store. I have to admit that I’d like to know what’s inside. But, actually, we both know what is inside. The human mind has always been thus.

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