Mindfulness in the New Year

 

Image of MindfulnessMindfulness is very trendy these days. 

In the last few months, Google Alerts has delivered several references a day to blogs that explore the application of mindfulness to everyday life. A recent sample included holiday eating, parenting, office management, career planning, reading comprehension, and— this one got a belly laugh from me—using a smartphone.

In my view, most of these advice-giving essays miss the point. While there is considerable evidence that an attitude of mindfulness can have a positive impact on one’s life, particularly in terms of reducing stress, mindfulness is not a tool, but a state of mind.

It is a state of being in which you are consciously and intentionally present in the moment, in which you observe your situation non-judgmentally, without regard to how the present moment relates to the rest of your life. It reflects a recognition that the past no longer exists, that the future is both unknown and largely out of your control.

I first ran into the concept of mindfulness twenty years, at the top of mountain in India.  I was attending a month-long philosophy class at the Tibetan Library in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama. As someone who tends to be highly analytical, I was charmed by the idea of simply being present in the moment, whatever that moment happened to be. 

The concept of mindfulness resonated all the more because it offered a philosophical explanation for the unusual degree of contentment I experienced during the eight months my husband and I had spent crossing the Pacific Ocean on a 37-foot sailboat. Our pace of travel and our ports of call depended on the wind and the weather, both completely out of our control. In those pre-cell phone and pre-GPS days, we had very little contact with the outside world. We had left family and friends behind, and had no idea what lay ahead.

Beyond brushing my teeth, fixing meals, and trimming the sails when the wind shifted, there was very little I had to accomplish. When I wasn’t reading or sleeping, I watched the multi-textured sea beneath us and explored the star-filled skies above.  

I savored those moments. The bronze-and-gold highlights on the water’s surface as the sun peeked above the horizon in the morning. The dancing lights cast on the black sea by the moonlight. The white stripe painted across the sky by the Milky Way. The surprisingly visible “black hole” in the sky near the Southern Cross. The high-pitched whine of our stern-mounted reel when we caught a fish. The alternating sensation of warmth and coolness as the heeling of the boat moved me from full sun to the shadow of the sails.

I was, for much of those eight months, present in the moment. I was mindful, not because I aspired to be, but because that was pretty much all there was to do. 

It was a lovely way to live.

But being in the moment proved harder to do once I returned to the world of work, travel, family and friends. It has been particularly hard during the past two years, when I have been intellectually and emotionally committed to finishing my novel, A Fitting Place. But the book is now done, with publication planned for the spring.

There are lots of “tasks” that remain to be done before then, but none that require the intensity of focus that writing a book took. I am consciously avoiding including any of these tasks in my goal for 2014.

Instead, my New Year’s resolution is to simply “be present” as often and as intentionally as I can.  

I think I won’t call it mindfulness. 

 

Happy New Year to all my blog readers.  The discussion of themes that are relevant to my forthcoming novel will resume next week.

 

A Fitting Place – Another Comfort Zone

 

In my memoir, Sailing Down the Moonbeam, leaving my comfort zone meant intentional travel in a small sailboat to unfamiliar locations around the world.  By contrast, the protagonist in my novel, A Fitting Place, is hurled out of her comfort zone when virtually everything she takes for granted in her familiar New York City environment is upended.

The premise of my novel, as with my memoir, is that stepping outside your comfort zone offers myriad opportunities for emotional, intellectual and professional growth.  Over the course of the next several months, as I complete the final draft, my blog will explore a number of the themes that recur throughout the novel.

Among them, not necessarily in order of importance or scheduling, are:

  •  the illusion of control,
  •  betrayal vs. loyalty,
  •  honesty vs. integrity,
  •  success and failure
  •  friendship,
  •  parenting,
  •  the cost of keeping secrets,
  •  mindfulness,
  •  intimacy,
  • communication,
  • gender identity and sexual fluidity,
  •  myth as a cultural narrative,

My intent is to open up a thoughtful discussion in some challenging arenas that, from time to time, generate strong opinions.  I am less interested in defending a particular point of view than in providing a forum where my readers can and will comment based on their own experiences.

As part of this strategy, I will be inviting individuals with personal experience and/or professional expertise in these areas to do guest blogs. If you would be interested in providing a guest piece on one or more of these topics, let me know and I will send you my guidelines.

 

Letting Go – Part II

 

IMG_7809Standing on a ledge in Bryce Canyon in Utah, it was not immediately obvious that “letting go” was the appropriate metaphor for this slender pine tree clinging tenaciously to an eroding soil bed. Indeed, it might seem that this lonesome sapling is a vestige of an arboreal species in an ecosystem long gone.  

But from another perspective, it strikes me as the perfect metaphor for letting go of outmoded and dysfunctional strategies for coping. It is so easy to just keep doing things the way we have always done them, even when they no longer work very well.  

That would certainly be the case for many of the trees in Bryce.  If the tree in the photo to the right had clung to the familiar notion that a tree should have its roots below ground and its base firmly attached to the soil, it would have disappeared down into the ravine years ago.  

But here we have a tree that has “learned” a new way of doing things.  It still has a trunk and relies on a root system that reaches into the ground and sends nutrients up the core to its branches.  But its roots are exceptionally strong and hardy enough to do double duty, both feeding the tree and holding it up.

I will try to remember my tree the next time I am struggling with something that just isn’t working.  Slow down.  Take a deep breath.  And look for another way.

 

Truth in Memoir: Omission vs. Commission

UnknownFor memoir writers, one of the most interesting things about the 2013 Oscar awards is the amount of ink spilled on the subject of truth in films that cover historical events or figures.  We’ve seen a host of opinions, for example, about the accuracy of the interrogation scenes in Zero Dark Thirty.  

There seems to be no conclusive evidence pro or con.

It is not my intent to weigh in on the accuracy of the debate.  But the debate has highlighted another aspect of truth in story telling—the intentional omission of an important piece of information.

Could the writers and producers have told the story of Osama bin Laden’s capture without including those very disturbing interrogation scenes? Perhaps, although it would have been a very different story.

But should those scenes have been left out, as suggested by Senator Diane Feinstein, so as to avoid going “back to those dark times?”

I think not. Whatever your view of interrogation as an intelligence tool, torture did take place in the effort to find bin Laden.  To intentionally leave these interrogations out of the story constitutes a form of revisionism or white-washing of our history.

There is a lesson here for memoir writers, who often struggle with revealing emotionally difficult details.  I remember clearly, as I wrote Sailing Down the Moonbeam, having my writing partners tell me that no one was forcing me to tell the story of my three-year sailing journey.  On the other hand, they said repeatedly, if I was going to tell the story, I had to be honest about it. I couldn’t leave out the embarrassing or painful parts.

Every author has the right to choose what story he or she wants to tell. But having chosen the story, the author has an obligation to tell the whole truth of the story, not just the incidents and events that put the author in the best light.

Is this something that you’ve struggled with in writing your memoir?