I. A Meditation on Bugs
I hadn’t walked five minutes up the trail before they ambushed me. A swarm of gnats dropped down in front of my face like a thin, black veil. Two flies laid claim to my ears—bzzzzzzzzzzzzzing in stereo. Their siege left me breathless—afraid to inhale.
My swatting—swat, buzz, swat, buzz, swat, buzz, buzz!—was moot.
By coincidence, I had recently watched that scene in the movie Eat Pray Love in which the Julie Roberts character successfully sits in meditation for a full hour despite an enthusiastic swarm of bugs and thoughts. She lets the small annoyances pass and finds her way to stillness.
I’ve had a hard time with that kind of mindfulness — still sitting, mind clearing. A few years ago, I tried a guided group meditation. A kind and creative soul gently guided us for an hour. We floated through the sky, over the ocean, into the stars—okay, THEY floated. I spent the entire hour imagining myself running after them, trying to catch up!
My mind and I are usually running after something—the next project, the next errand, the next idea. Lots and lots of thoughts…like the lots and lots of bugs around my head!
In her book Stop the Pain: Adult Meditations, my dear friend Dale Carlson explains that there are many ways to meditate: “If your nervous system is the result of an active gene pool or you are personally too frayed to sit down right off, begin with a walk.”
In my own explorations mindfulness, my walks have become my meditation, but this day in the woods with the bugs was particularly challenging. I wanted to find my way to quiet. I tried to just be with the bugs. I walked (swat), I listened to the birds (buzz), I looked up at the trees (swat), I heard the leaves rustle (buzz).
Over and over again, I tried to bring my mind back to the present—to “pay attention” as Dale often reminds me—walking on a trail, drops of rain on my head, the smell of damp earth. And over and over again, my mind would run after the bugs.
Slowly, I am learning to let these annoyances pass over me. There are days when the bugs stay with me, buzzing their demands and nipping at my spirit for the entire walk.
And then there are days I walk with great ease—my breath is free, my mind is clear, and everything around me glows.
II. With Eyes Cast Down
My mind was busy as I walked to the trail. It was one of those days. Should I go left? Should I go right? I am always indecisive when my mind is occupied otherwise.
On this day, I went right—instead of left—and found my way along a narrow, woodland path. Up a hill. Across a small, spring stream. Into the quiet of the woods—I was breathing again.
There, in front of me, a patch of new ferns congregated along the edge of the trail, and I paused for a moment. Down on one knee to look closer, I realized I was no longer worrying about the worries that were worrying me. Funny how that happens, isn’t it?
“It turns out meditation is not separate from daily life,” writes Dale. “It is taking time for walking or sitting in silence so your life can be reflected in the pool of that silence.”
Right there, I gave myself an assignment: Look down, be quiet, pay attention.
And there they were. Small clusters of wildflowers, patches of delicate ferns, bright colors, and playful shapes. New spring life, all along my path.
I never would have seen them. Look down, be quiet, pay attention.
III. Being One With
I knew right away it was a magical day in the woods. The gorgeous 50-degree afternoon was accented by a bright blue sky and a soft breeze that sang through the trees.
I saw a trail I’d never seen before, followed it to the edge of the pond and sat for a while. Sat. Quietly. I’d been invited to do so by the turtle who was on the log but disappeared as soon as I sat down. I waited for him to return, but he never did.
So I made my way back down a familiar path until I heard the distinct rustle of a hawk landing in a tree just up a hill. I stood silently for five, maybe ten minutes, watching it perched up high. But, when I decided to get a closer look, he took off into the tops of pine trees nearby. As I continued on my way, he flew above me, casting shadows on the path—he was watching me now, and we both knew it.
A squirrel stopped when I called to her, but dropped her acorn from the startle. “Go ahead, go back and get it,” I told her, then stepped gingerly back a few steps to allow safe space. She scurried down the tree, snatched up her meal, then glanced my way as if to say thanks.
A carpenter bee was busily moving about when I came upon her. I watched for a while as she crawled in an out of her burrow—spring cleaning, I wondered?
Walking further and further down the path this way, I could feel peace settle in. If I closed my eyes and breathed, I barely existed—except to feel the breeze on my skin and hear the whisper of trees. My footsteps, my heartbeat, my thoughts were so far away, they sounded hollow and unreal.
From the flirting of birds in the trees to the surprise of late-spring wildflowers come early, the forest was brimming with life and spirit…and suddenly, so was I.
“In silence, oneness with everything is possible….” — Dale Carlson
Excerpted from LOOK UP! Musings on the Nature of Mindfulness, by author and naturalist Jen Payne. Both LOOK UP! and her new bookEvidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind, are available for purchase from Three Chairs Publishing.
Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind was featured in the January 2018 issue of INGRAM ADVANCE as part of their Publisher Selects section. Check it out!
BUG OUT! That’s what they called it on the TV show M*A*S*H. The enemy is getting closer, someone yells “Bug Out!” and everyone, everywhere packs up everything and bolts!
I use the same word, often, when it’s time to get away for a while. BUG OUT! You know that feeling, right? You’ve been working really hard, your To Do list hasn’t gotten any shorter, you can’t seem to get enough sleep, and coffee just isn’t working its usual magic.
It’s time to Retreat! Regroup! Withdraw! Escape!
I don’t think the battlefront vocabulary is all that off-base. We live in a world of battles — time, technology, schedules, workloads, deadlines. If you’re a creative type, somewhere in all of that you must also make room for the Muse who feeds your soul. And if your Muse is anything like mine, she lets you know when she’s hungry for more attention!
In the Scientific American article “Why Your Brain Needs More Downtime,” (https://tinyurl.com/j7v6kyj) writer Ferris Jabr details study after study that confirm the importance of taking time off. He concludes that “Downtime replenishes the brain’s stores of attention and motivation, encourages productivity and creativity, and is essential to both achieve our highest levels of performance and simply form stable memories in everyday life.”
But we can’t all be like author Elizabeth Gilbert — a little overwhelmed, take a year off and travel the world to Eat Pray Love our way back to our creative selves. Not everyone has that luxury.
But here’s what I’ve learned about downtime…
IF…I give myself just a half hour to meditate or take a nap or walk in the woods? My Muse breathes.
IF…I give myself a day off, like a Sunday-Sabbath-resting day off? Then my Muse dances.
And IF…I am so lucky as to be able to take a true retreat — a suitcase, off-the-grid, away-from-things retreat — my Muse will pack up her stuff and come along with me. We’ll see things with fresh eyes, we’ll come up with new ideas, and we’ll start speaking to each other again.
Resistance is Futile
How easily I
write of changing seasons,
life grown from death.
Circle of Life,
with heels dug firm.
But at Sunday service
in wooded cathedral
as summer genuflects,
and jewel weed with wild grapes
stand at the crossing…
Everything is flowing,
How foolish am I to resist?
The Poem “Resitance is Futile” appears in the book Evidence of Flossing: What We Leave Behind, by author and naturalist Jen Payne, a collection of poetry and photographs that ask the reader to consider: What will we leave behind? What is our legacy in this vast and wondrous Universe?