Tag Archives: Mindfulness

Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

_____

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Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

_____

Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

_____

Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

_____

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New year? It’s time to turn to Plan Be

One thing at a time... 'René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden' Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

One thing at a time…
‘René Descartes with Queen Christina of Sweden’
Pierre-Louis Dumesnil

Be.

Did you wake up this morning with a list of resolutions? Are you about to eat less/drink less/spend less, work more/exercise more/sleep more?

Good idea. There’s a strong chance that, in a week’s time, you’ll be fitter, happier and more productive.

Over here…I’m going to be.

Planning forward, dwelling back, trying to think through more than one task in the here and now – this is my usual daily MO.

And so for the first few hours, and hopefully days, of this new year I’ll be sitting here, or there, trying to be.

The word sits atop a multitude of philosophical and psychological concepts and practices, from Rene Descartes ‘corgito ergo sum‘ (can we trust any sense beyond thought?) to Jon Kabat-Zinn’s ‘moment-to-moment awareness‘.

In my case it means focusing wholly on a single task in a single moment. One concept, one piece of work, one memory, one sensation, one thought.

Focusing on this ‘one’ also avoids the pull of distraction, a mentally-toxic wrench which corrodes clear thinking. (And makes us unhappier as a result).

This resolution is more than the usual casual advice to ‘live in the moment’ – the moment being something ephemeral and impossible to grasp (existentialist me asks if it even exists).

It’s to focus, to notice, to accept, to process, here and now.

This is Plan Be for 2015.

_____

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‘He wanted to stay in that cafe forever’

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If Christmas means anything it means home – a place or a sense of home.

The lucky ones will find themselves there today, at home, among friends, family or even alone.

I woke this chilly Christmas morning in one place I can call home, Wexford, the town where I was born. Lucky, I rose with a sense of peace, my wife alongside me, other family members stirring.

The feeling of home struck me so strongly that I was brought to another place, taken from the streets of Wexford to a snow-struck hill town in North Carolina.

A young man sat in a cafe there, in a poem by Charles Bukowski. There’s no mention of Christmas, or home, but the verse is suffused with peace, a feeling of contentment and acceptance, the Christmas spirit.

“…the meal was
particularly
good
and the
coffee.
the waitress was
unlike the women
he had
known.
she was unaffected,
there was a natural
humor which came
from her.
the fry cook said
crazy things.
the dishwasher,
in back,
laughed, a good
clean
pleasant
laugh.
the young man watched
the snow through the
windows.
he wanted to stay
in that cafe
forever.
the curious feeling
swam through him
that everything
was
beautiful
there,
that it would always
stay beautiful
there.”*

—–
*Charles Bukowski, “Nirvana”.

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The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.

_____

 

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How long will your memory last?

'Memories' Frederick Leighton (1883)

‘Memories’
Frederick Leighton (1883)

WHO’LL remember you in 70 years time?

Who’ll know your name? What you achieved, who you loved, where you lived?

Will anyone remember even one of the myriad details, events or landmarks that made up your life?

How long will your legacy – such as it will be – last?
_____

“The most that most of us can hope to live on for, after our deaths, is 70 or 80 years. Can you remember your grandparents names? Where they came from or lived?

“What about your great grandparents. What do you know of them?”

These were questions put to me in a recent conversation I had with an associate, P.

He posed them as part of his argument for the need to live in the present, as a method to highlight the uselessness – the sheer cosmic unimportance – of the things most of us spend inordinate amounts of time considering, worrying about or planning.

Focusing on our short, transient existence can be liberating for some, depressing for others; for more it’s a mix of both.

If we accept P’s argument it swiftly leads us to make a demand of ourselves: I must live as best and true and I can, for myself and others.

Perhaps this living legacy is the only one that matters, the only immortality we can expect. And if it outlives us, more luck.
_____

Memorial to Ed Ricketts, Cannery Row, California. Pic: I, Amadscientist

Memorial to Ed Ricketts, Cannery Row, California.
Pic: I, Amadscientist

This occurred in recent days as I read excerpts from ‘About Ed Ricketts’, an essay written in memory of the marine biologist of the same name by his friend John Steinbeck.

The work is an obituary, a love letter to friendship, to life, to hard work and hard relaxation, to enlightenment, to wine, to music and to all of us, to people.

Ricketts, the inspiration for ‘Doc’ in the novel Cannery Row, had been killed in a car crash in 1948.

“He went a long way and burned a deep scar,” Steinbeck wrote, justifying his decision to write truly about his friend, a man who “had the faults of his virtues”.

How to capture one man’s life, his legacy? “There can be no formula. The simplest and best way will just be to remember,” Steinbeck argues.*

As legacies go being remembered like this, in the honest words of a friend, is as good as most of us can expect.

And so Ed Ricketts, almost 70 years gone himself at this stage, had as good a shot at immortality as any. But in time he too will surely slip from public consciousness.

As for us, perhaps the best we should hope for is that we ‘go a long way’, do our best, and that people will remember.

For how long? Does it matter?
_____

*John Steinbeck, ’From ‘About Ed Ricketts’’, Of Men And Their Making: The Selected Non-Fiction of John Steinbeck, ed. Susan Shillinglaw and Jackson J. Benson (Penguin, 2002), p 183

 

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Most of all

For those I'm here with.

For those I’m here with.

And do you feel yourself thankful?

I do.

Thankful for being here.

Thankful for those I’m here with, her most of all.

Thankful every morning.

Not thankful enough for most of the day.

But thankful.

For small things.

For the last line of A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.

For the first solo on Autumn Leaves.

And the taste of crab linguine.

And more.

I’m thankful that release exists and that I witnessed it.

That pain exists and has an end.

That love exists and has none.

Most of all I’m thankful that I’m here, and not anywhere else.

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Dylan and the art of doing nothing

Another self portrait

Another self portrait (Looney).

MY automated to-do list usually kicks in at about 6am. In fact, it usually wakes me.

I lie in the Philip Larkin pre-dawn working through my planned tasks before gradually hauling myself up and into another day.

This happens on work days, on non-work days, on holidays. This morning, driving to the train station, my wife pointed out that I even manage to obsess about things I have to do on a day, like this, when I really don’t have to do anything.

And doing nothing, at the right time and in the right place, is just as important to me as doing something.

That’s why I crave the mornings when I wake and realise that my mental diary’s been closed overnight, that my mind and the hours ahead are clear.

With this clarity comes rest and with this rest comes peace of mind.

_____

Bob Dylan achieved this peace of mind, albeit briefly.

Waking early and at ease one morning last week I rose, walked into the sitting room, and turned on the stereo.

The most recent Dylan release, a bootleg series issue called Another Self Portrait, is made up of songs written when he was, to the public at least, living the life of a recluse in the Catskill Mountains.

The bulk of the collection’s 35 songs were either rehearsed or written in this period, in 1968 and early 1969, and recorded in New York City in 1970 when Dylan returned to live there.

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Another Self Portrait (Dylan).

Most are covers, something Dylan was criticised for when he included other versions of the same songs on his 1970 album Self Portrait.

Hearing these songs now though, at a remove of more than 40 years and in a digital age inconceivably different to the era of their recording, the listener is struck by a mood of peace and rest.

This feeling is most apparent on Time Passes Slowly #1, an early version of a track that appears on the album New Morning.

Dylan’s languid vocal is Walden-in-Woodstock. “Time passes slowly up here in the mountains,” is his entry line.

Later he sings, before his voice is joined by an blissed-out George Harrison vocal:
Ain’t no reason to go in a wagon to town
Ain’t no reason to go to the fair
Ain’t no reason to go up, ain’t no reason to go down
Ain’t no reason to go anywhere…

_____

Having no reason to go anywhere that morning I laid on the sofa and listened to half of Another Self Portrait. I encountered Railroad Bill (“never worked and he never will”), Thirsty Boots (“take off your thirsty boots and stay for awhile”) and All The Tired Horses (“in the sun”).

Much of this was and is beautiful art, offering everything except urgency.

That most of it was conceived during a period of apparent R&R for Dylan offers a lesson in how the best work can be done when the mental diary is cleared, or binned.

Or as the self portraitist puts it: “time passes slowly when you’re lost in a dream”.

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Have you ever heard the rain?

Rain falling in Alsaace, France. Pic: Axel Rouvin

Rain falling in Alsace, France.
Pic: Axel Rouvin

IS THERE a more relaxing sound that rain falling on trees?

This dripping soundtrack was the silver lining to the cloud which encroached on Wexford overnight last Saturday, signalling an end to July’s heatwave.

Lying and listening, awake in the darkness, it occurred to me how rarely I actually hear rain (though I feel it plenty).

I doubt I’m the only one.

Precipitation is a source of constant complaint in Ireland. That’s not surprising, given that parts of the country experience an average of 225 wet days a year.

But focusing on the sight and the feel of rain – neither of which is usually very pleasant – usually means that I miss the sound, the consistent, light drum of falling drops on leaves.

The calming effect of this may be simply an aural impact, the drops creating a sound which slips into sync with my brainwaves.

It could also have a much deeper psychological resonance, a link to a primitive human past where rainfall meant renewal of life, or growth, or a ‘oneness’ with the environment and seasons.

Or maybe it’s just soothing because I’m lying indoors in a dry bed.

That said the sound struck me again as I walked home from work late the following evening.

Moving along the tree-lined road leading to our apartment drops began to fall on the car- and wind-less street.

Removing my headphones I stood and listen to the symphony, moving and changing as drops fell on higher leaves, or lower ones, or the pavement.

Brian Eno, 1974.

Brian Eno, 1974.

The effect was almost musical.

The two incidents put me in mind of an observation made by composer Brian Eno.

In 1975, recovering in hospital following a car accident, the musician observed how the sound of rain contributed to the ambience of an environment like certain light or music did.

In Eno’s case he observed the effect the falling rain had when it was mingled with the low-volume record of harp music he was playing in the room.

This conclusion subsequently led him to create a number of groundbreaking ‘ambient’ records – containing music which comes very close to replicating the calming effect of rainsounds.

Strangely enough Eno didn’t use rain samples on these recordings – or none I can can hear at least.* (Other artists have incorporated the sound; most famously, perhaps, The Doors).

And I’ve yet to hear a musical simulacrum which has the same effect as the real thing.

Until I do I’ll just keep opening a window.

Morning on the Seine in the Rain Claude Monet (1898)

‘Morning on the Seine in the Rain’
Claude Monet (1898)

________

*Unlike some other natural sounds. Two of my favourite recordings feature wind and fire – the wind on this Geir Jenssen Cho Oyo field recording and the fire crackling behind this Neil Young acoustic track.

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