How easy it is to become lost in our busy lives!
I’d like to share with you something of my recent experience with Covid.
Finally, it had come for me. For several days I lay in bed feeling wretched, alternating between sleep, prodding listlessly at my phone, or reading light detective novels.
Sometimes I remembered my mindfulness practice and focused on how the virus felt in my body, which I anticipated would be thoroughly unpleasant! In fact, this was not always the case: occasionally I was led into a pleasant state of relaxation.
As I contemplated the next (umpteenth!) book in the detective series, I noticed a sense of lack. A voice inside was urging “No. Read something that asks more from you – and will give you more back.” So, I launched into Thomas Hardy’s “The Return of the Native”, a tale of loyalty and betrayal set on a remote heath; the heath itself standing out amongst an engaging cast of characters. With little else to do, I consumed the twisting plot voraciously, as lovers trysted on wild nights and thoughtless acts led to tragedy. I wolfed the whole book in one day.
The next morning, idly looking back at the preface, I came upon a comment suggesting that this was one of the best novels ever written. Quite an assertion! I was aware that my reading had been rather superficial. It occurred to me that I had read the book as if it were a detective novel: wanting to get to the end and find out what happened. From force of habit, I had read it in a hurry.
Sensing that I had missed much of the richness of this insightful book, I decided to re-read it, this time at leisure. After all, I already knew what happened.
At the beginning Hardy draws the visual grandeur of the dark heath, transporting the reader into its desolate presence. In an extraordinary later passage he evokes its unique soundscape, with its windy bass tones, baritone buzz of holly and massed treble voices of bleached harebells. A sigh from the magnificent anti-heroine, Eustacia, shifts the action from the elemental to the human realm. Masterful! I had skated over the surface of the book the first time around, overlooking so much.
How much of my life do I miss from being in a rush?
Once I had settled into this slower pace, I began to notice more of the garden I was sitting in, especially its rich bird-life. I saw how the apparently similar jackdaws and crows each had their unique flight style. I learned that the false acacia tree in a nearby garden was home to nesting blackbirds and frequented by a trio of goldfinches. The trilling of the blackbird never failed to lift my spirits and when a squirrel came for their eggs, I felt the drama. Gradually I did more of nothing at all, sometimes lapsing into a relaxed reverie. I noticed how nourishing it was to have time to dream.
While it was an opportunity for deeper relaxation, it was more than rest. It was a space for soul. I’m not talking metaphysics here; I’m talking Aretha Franklin singing ‘Respect’. My experience of mindfulness was helping me to value this episode as a pause within the general flow of a busy life, which - despite the obvious drawbacks of being ill - was turning out to have some clear up-sides.
A pause can come in many forms, from a few seconds within a tricky conversation to allowing time to ‘sleep on it’ before making a decision. It might be any period of reflection or meditation; a day off or holiday; a career-break; or indeed, a period of illness that stops you in your tracks.
The possibility of becoming more aware is the first outcome. This might include noticing what a mad rush we’ve been in. If this recognition feels uncomfortable, so much the better! The discomfort itself seeds the motivation to do something different. This may be a reframing, as when I gave myself permission to spend weeks or months with one book, rather than assuming it would be ‘done’ in hours or days.
Then comes the enjoyable part: savouring such everyday pleasures as become available, like a child making a favourite sweet last as long as possible. Or a reader, moved by wise words from a beautifully observed world.