About five years ago, my therapist at the time took me outside during one of our sessions and instructed me to sit down on a step and close my eyes.
“What do you hear?” she asked.
“Um, cars on the road?” I said.
I listened. “Birds.”
This went on for a while then she asked me what I could smell.
Then, she told me to open my eyes. She handed me a leaf.
“Look at this leaf,” she told me. “Describe it to me.”
I didn’t know what the purpose of this outdoor activity was. The weather was nice, and I was enjoying a break from the muddy waters of feelings I typically waded through during our sessions, but describing a leaf? I thought we might be erring on the side of kooky.
Later, my therapist would explain the purpose of this exercise: to practice mindfulness.
Mindfulness is a trendy word these days, but five years ago I had never heard of it. I didn’t know how to practice it, and I didn’t understand how it could help me. Mindfulness, as I understand it, is the practice of being present with your mind, body and spirit by noticing and being aware of what is around you in that moment. Sounds easy enough, but for someone like me, practicing presence of mind is incredibly difficult.
Most of my thoughts on any given day take place in the past or the future, rather than the present. When I’m in conversation with someone, I find myself thinking about the thing I need to do next. I stop mid-task, mid-T.V. show, mid-page to get up and do something I forgot to do. While I’m driving, I think about what I should have said, done or how I should have behaved differently.
I am rarely present with what’s right in front of me—the road, a book, my friend—and instead live a life that takes place in the future or in the past. What lives in the future? Anxiety and fear of the unknown. What lives in the past? Regret, worry, could-have-beens.
I often think about that day sitting outside looking at that leaf. I twisted it around in my hand. I still remember exactly what it looked like. Small, light green, smooth. That leaf was my introduction to the idea of being present, and it represents how I want to live my life in 2019, mindful of what’s in my direct line of sight. This year, I want to truly listen in conversation. I want to do the task at hand without doing other tasks in my head. I want to notice the weather and how it feels. I want to look at leaves and see the veins in them, feel their smooth and rough textures, study their deep green color.
I’ve realized one of the reasons practicing mindfulness is so difficult is that it requires quite a bit of surrender. Worrying about the future is a form of control. It allows me to try and imagine it, guess what will happen, make assumptions about events, people and things—all of which is an attempt to control what I can’t. Agonizing over my past is a similar form of control. At least agonizing over it allows me relive decisions and redo them, giving me the false that I can undo and redo what has already been done.
Living fully in the present means I have to loosen my grip on future’s fears and past’s regrets. Living in the present is a letting go and a confession that I am not in control.
This is what makes mindfulness a spiritual practice for me. It’s one of the many surrenders required in the Christian life. It is telling God, I trust you enough with my past and future to be with you here right now. It gives me the ability to see what God is doing, restoring and renewing right in front of me. And it allows me to see, notice and appreciate all that God has made, down to the very last leaf.
This week I posted on Instagram that I didn’t have any huge goals for this year. I just wanted to read, pray, stretch, breathe and cook. I realize now that all of those activities force me to be present. When I read, I am immersed in a story. When I pray, I am in conversation with God. When I do yoga, I am constantly instructed to return to my breath. When I pay attention to my breath, I am aware of my body and my lungs, the way air feels as it passes through me. And cooking, well, because I am not a very good cook, my mind can’t wander while I am chopping, sautéing and simmering. I have to give vegetables, knives, pots and pans my full attention or things will go awry quickly.
Read. Stretch. Breathe. Pray. Cook. They are simple things, but I do at least one of them every day, making the practice of presence a very doable, and daily, goal for me.
I want to be here for my life. I want to see, taste, smell, hear and feel it. This year, if you run across a kooky lady on the side of the road staring intently at a leaf, breathing in the air, and listening for all of the sounds, it is probably me and you can just keep on walking because that means I am doing alright.