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In the Ozarks, the dark of night offers a lesson in mindfulness


Recently my wife and I spent a weekend in our little house back in the woods in the Ozark mountains. Evening fell. There was no moon that night. In the country, a moonless night means a darkness that we city-dwellers seldom experience any longer.

My wife went to play cards with neighbors taking the flashlight with her to light the way down the path. Ready to join her later, I realized she had taken the only flashlight. Searching for a light source, I found an old kerosene lamp. With the soot-blackened chimney sheltering the flickering flame, I hurried along the path, flanked on both sides by tall, fragrant pines. About halfway down, a night breeze came up and blew out my lamp. Instantly the darkness swallowed me. I stood with the lamp in my hand, stumped and a little afraid of the darkness -- and gradually began to come alive.

As my eyes got used to the dark, I discovered that I could see dimly the silhouettes of the trees against the overcast skies. Far off, I could hear the cry of an owl and a barking dog; nearer, the soft dripping of raindrops left over from an early evening storm. The wonderful smells of the woodland filled the air with a heady incense. I felt a thrill inside, a sense of expectation. It seemed anything might happen. Adventures and revelations were around the next bend. I could feel my blood’s flood pounding through my veins. At the same time, there was a sense of gentle love for all of creation, especially its living things.

I never would have experienced the full richness of that moment in the woods if my flame had not been blown out by an errant wind, thereby slowing down my hurried pace. An insignificant section of a woodland path that I have passed a thousand times, usually in a hurry, provided reconnection with the bottomless depths of the ordinary.

Our local spirituality group once held an evening session devoted to the subject of time or the lack thereof. We titled it (after a Yiddish saying): “Sleep faster! We need the pillows!” Participants brought egg timers and meditated on the potential in a short interval. One person there said: “I feel as though there is a thief in my heart, in my home, in my life, who steals all my time. There’s never enough time.”

Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh in his books on the miracle of mindfulness suggests remedies. Mindfulness, or being mindful, is simply being aware of our present moment. We’re not judging, reflecting or thinking. We simply observe the moment in which we find ourselves. Nhat Hanh speaks of the everyday task of washing dishes.

“If while washing dishes,” he writes, “we think only of the cup of tea that awaits, thus hurrying to get the dishes out of the way as if they were a nuisance, then we are not ‘washing dishes to wash the dishes.’ ” What’s more, we are not really alive during that time. In fact we are completely incapable of realizing the miracle of life while standing at the sink. If we can’t wash the dishes, chances are we won’t be able to drink our tea either, barely aware of the cup in our hands. Thus we are sucked away into the future, incapable of actually living these moments of our life.

This deliberate mindfulness is a way to get back time that seems stolen from us. The present moment is the only moment where we can actually touch life. So it must be lived more deeply. Zen master Ling Chi said: “The miracle is not to walk on burning coals or in thin air or on water; the real miracle is to walk on the earth. You are alive and walking on this beautiful planet and are mindful of it. That is a true miracle.”

Thich Nhat Hanh mines the Buddhist tradition, yet mindfulness is a part of the Christian spiritual tradition as well. Jesus apparently took prayerful notice of the lilies in the field. St. Benedict had his monks work at simple everyday tasks in equal measure with the time spent praying. Anyone who has thoughtfully read Thomas Merton’s beautifully elegiac Fire Watch, his account of an evening spent making the rounds in his monastery, has experienced the deep mindfulness of this 20th-century contemplative activist. His presence in the here and now led him from meditation to transcendence and risk-taking compassion.

“Here is the way it is when I go on the fire watch,” he writes, “ .... where night was never made to hide sin, but to open infinite distances to charity and send our souls to play beyond the stars.” As he passes from the scullery through the choirs up to the chapel belfry, he is fully aware of what is going on both on the outside and inside his experiences. He concludes: “Eternity is in the present. Eternity is in the palm of the hand. Eternity is a seed of fire, whose sudden roots break barriers that keep my heart from being an abyss.”

Not only can we have a life rich in simple blessings, but also there is a directed energy in contemplative living that impels us to do something about the suffering and injustice we see around us. The Christian spiritual tradition is full of this dynamic. The bottom line? In the fast-paced 21st century, mindfulness is a real alternative to the treadmill’s diminishment. It can also lead us from a fearful life to a bold and contributive one.

Rich Heffern is author of Daybreak Within: Living in a Sacred World (Forest of Peace Publishing).

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000