This will be my final blog post on mindfulness for some time. I want to begin dedicating my writing time to writing a novel. My hope is that in my past dozen or so writings on mindfulness I have covered a large amount of territory when it comes to implementing mindfulness practice in daily life. This final post is a less instructional/theoretical and a more personal portrait of my own experience with mindfulness practice. It is a bit long but hopefully worth the time. See if as you read it you can remain aware of your breath. Enjoy.
In a book I was reading I came across a quote by John Muir, which said: “I am losing precious days. I am degenerating into a machine for making money. I am learning nothing in this trivial world of men. I must break away and get into the mountains to learn the news.” With my black ink pen, I crossed out the word mountains and underneath wrote backyard.
There is an EXIT sign that hangs on the front of the wooden gate that leads into my backyard.
With a cup of coffee and whatever book I am reading I head into my backyard around 7am. I sit in a wooden chair, which generates a symphony of bending and cracking sounds. I am aware that one morning I will go into my backyard as I always do, sit down with my book and coffee and the chair will split open leaving me in the dirt, covered in hot coffee and the crumpled up pages of a book. I will burst into a fit of laughter. It is only a matter of time before this happens.
I have a difficult time paying attention to the book I am reading. Instead, I normally sip my coffee and look around. I focus on breathing, listening, sensations. I watch the plethora of birds that loiter around in my yard. Their language seems to calm my already over-active mind. I notice all kinds of unrelated thoughts making their way across the screen of my consciousness. I notice squirrels digging holes under the lemon tree. I notice a flock of doves resting in the avocados tree.
Through a large mirror that I placed in the back corner of my backyard I watch the reflection of clouds clearing and reveling an open space so massive and incomprehensible that it puts my worries and pre-occupations into a more meaningful perspective.
Once I am half way through my cup of coffee and grounded by my bare feet resting on the grass, I feel the lethargy clearing enough so that I feel ready to read. Something about caffeine makes even the dullest of books enjoyable.
As I read I pay attention to the cacophony of sounds. Birds, squirrels, planes, leaf blowers, car horns, bees, barking dogs, the neighbors radio, sirens, pulsations in my body. Behind all of the sounds I can also hear the underlying sound of silence. Hindus call this sound Om. I try not to call it anything.
Once I am finished with my cup of coffee I feel as jumpy as the small birds skipping around in the trees. I notice a thought that says: maybe I should stop drinking coffee. Another thought remembers one of my favorite meditation teachers who loved coffee because he said it “wakes us up!” I feel an excitement towards life that was not there before coffee. I am ready to do something beyond just reading. I need to get up and move around or go write. Sitting still is more of a challenge when the coffee cup is empty.
An empty coffee cup marks the end of my favorite time of day.
With my shirt off and no shoes on my feet I become an explorer of my backyard. I look around under the lemon trees and I find areas where I feel most removed from the outside world. I water the community of plants that my wife and I care for like children or pets. With a broom I eradicate uninhabited spider webs and clear dirt and dust from walkways. When I get tired I rest in the sun.
It’s while sitting in the afternoon sun that I feel most present. It is almost as if the sun is a present moment generating machine. There are fears that run through my mind on a daily basis but fear of the sun is not one of them. I live in a time when most people are so afraid of the sun that they are willing to cover themselves in a toxic lather to avoid its harm.
I can’t help think that by avoiding the sun we lose so much of what makes us human. We become more digitalized and dehumanized when we spend most of our time inside. I am convinced this is a deeper, more metaphysical explanation for why we can’t see our computer or phone screens while sitting in the sun.
When people ask me if I have a swimming pool in my backyard I think: No, but I have sun. A good day is when no one comes around, I have nothing to do and I can spend the afternoon in my backyard swimming around in the sun, while floating in a book and in my breath.
Many years ago I visited a naturopath to try and find a solution for my anxiety and depression. He asked me if I had anger issues. I told him that I did. He told me that I would first have to take care of that before any progress could be made with the anxiety and depression. I asked him how I could do that since so much of what made me angry was out of my control. He told me to take twenty minutes everyday, roll out a blanket on the grass and try and take a nap. His prescription did not make sense to me. How could this do anything for my anger? Wasn’t I just being lazy, which would make me angrier? But I started doing it anyways.
My most irritable, agitated and anxious days are those days when I do not have the time to roll out a blanket and take a small nap on the grass in my backyard. When I am away from home in the afternoon I will sometimes take a ten-minute break and visualize myself resting in the grass. I see myself lying on my back. I can hear the sounds of the birds and bees reporting to me the news of the day. I can feel the earth’s radiation causing my body tingle and warm up. I can feel what neurobiologists refer to as coherence.
Any day that I can take a nap in my backyard for twenty minutes is a day that anxiety and anger seem to be absent. I want to call that naturopath and thank him for the tip, but he has since moved on to practice meditation full-time in Thailand.
Thoreau said that the person who watches the sunset, longs for nothing while watching the colors changing in the sky. Watching the sunset is meditation.
It seems that one of my German Shepherds appreciates the sunset even more than I do. When I am home during sunset hours I can feel him telling me that it is time to get out of the confines of my house and venture out into the backyard.
Together we walk through the gate with the EXIT sign on it.
We go into an isolated corner of the backyard, where it is easier to maintain the illusion that I am far off in nature and there are not other people living all sides of me. There are piles of fallen leaves, an orange wheel barrel standing on its side, yellow plastic garden chairs, dozens of empty pots and garden tools. It’s the kind of spot where you could take off all your clothes and feel comfortable that no one else can see.
Next to me my dog sits on his back two legs and keep his front legs and chest straightened so he can see over the plants and up into the clear patch of sky. I sit in the yellow plastic garden chair, which always seems to have a spider or two resting in its web. I feel bad about disturbing their rest so I share the space with them.
For however long into takes for day to turn into night, my dog and I are fully absorbed in what is going on all around. There is an indescribable pleasure and serenity that overcomes a person when the borders of skin and identity that keep us separated from the world, fall away. If boredom is the unpleasant absence of all desire, then watching the sunset in my backyard with my dog is a kind of pleasurable boredom. In must be similar to what Zen Buddhists call satori- a state of clear seeing unobstructed by ego.
It usually takes me a few minutes or so to get into the fully present space. My mind is normally racing with all kinds of irrelevant things. Things I need to do, things I did not do, worrying about what could happen, remembering things in the past. My dog however gets there right away and does not come out of it until it is dark and I get up and say, “lets go.”
A good day is a day that ends in a remote corner of my backyard with my dog and I following the sunset to its end.
I don’t enjoy traveling or going away too long from my home. I’m not afflicted with a chronic feeling of wanderlust. As a child my parents “dragged” me all around the world and by the age of eighteen I made the conscious decision to be done- to stay local. These days if the weather is nice and I am away from home for too long, I notice this nagging feeling that I am losing precious time that I could be spending in my backyard.
When I was a child (and there is an aspect to being a child that I hope not to ever lose) I had a hint of what my adult life would be like. I was on a river rafting trip with my then handsome, wanderlust consumed and robust father. As we were gently paddling down a calm section of the river I noticed a small shack made of wood. There were clothes hanging on a clothesline and a chair leaning up against a small shack. I asked my dad what that was since we were in a very remote part of the Sierras. He said, “That is where a hermit lives son.” I immediately responded by saying, “I want to be a hermit when I grow up.” He did not look pleased.
My backyard is the place where I feel most pleasantly alone. Granted it is not the mountains that John Muir wondered in. My backyard is situated in a lower middle class, Los Angeles suburb. There are people, pollution, freeways, telephone polls and other pollution causing human inventions all around. But whenever I am in my backyard with all of the plants, trees and wildlife- the entire outside world becomes irrelevant.
It is especially around midnight that I get closest to what John Muir must of felt in his mountains.
Before bed I like to take my flash light and wonder for a bit in my backyard. I walk along small pathways in the same way that I silently walked along pathways at meditations retreats years ago. I am listening, breathing and moving slow. I look around. The suburbs are asleep and other than a few passing sirens chasing someone’s inevitable personal tragedy, only the more spacious sounds of the midnight can be heard.
No birds, no dogs barking- just the subtle humming feedback loops that midnight makes.
I walk onto the center of the lawn where above me there is nothing but the large sky. I stare into the sky where I can see some stars, some planets and a few passing planes. I watch the spectacle above my head in the same way that I imagine people have been looking up into the sky for hundreds of thousands of years. Sometimes I notice a few tears leaking out from my eyes, sometimes not. But standing there in space, outside of time- I always feel gratitude.
Gratitude for the experience that I am having in that moment. Gratitude for all the experiences I have ever had. Even the shitty ones.
All of the frustrations, worries and other preoccupations that took up a large part of my day seem to disappear. A middle-aged man with a flashlight in his hand, present in what feels like the center of the universe, staring up into the night sky at the beginnings of the twenty first century.
I count my breaths from one to ten and then from ten to one. I turn off my flashlight and head towards bed.