Each morning I begin my day by reading a poem by Mary Oliver. Yesterday morning I read one, “Humpback,” from her book American Primitive that brought me to tears. Oliver has a unique gift of opening herself to Reality, the Reality so many of us spend our days asleep to, and of finding words to convey it such that its radiance can pierce our own minds.
It got me thinking about how the poet’s foremost job is to be awake to life and to notice things that most of us don’t. Only by being awake does the poet have anything to say, and only after her raw encounter with Reality does she turn her attention to the difficult work of finding the words to describe what she has witnessed, words that ideally have the power to stir us, her readers, into our own wakefulness.
All of this made me think of Ellen Langer, a professor of psychology at Harvard who for over 35 years has been researching the effects of mindfulness on health and happiness.
Langer takes a different approach to mindfulness than most of us are accustomed to. For her mindfulness doesn’t require a rigorous practice of meditation or yoga, and in her opinion admonitions such as, “Be present,” are useless, because when we aren’t present we aren’t present to know we aren’t present.
For Langer mindfulness is quite simple. It’s simply noticing, setting the intention to go about our day noticing things we’ve never noticed before.
This practice pulls us out of the sleepwalker’s life we usually lead in which we put our body on automatic pilot and let our mind wander endlessly through the maze of its own fictions.
Later on yesterday I was walking home, holding Langer’s advice in my mind to notice things, and as I walked by a flowerbed near our house I noticed the shadow that the cap stone cast on the stuccoed wall. It was beautiful in its dance of light and shadow, looking like an inverted mountain range.
I had walked by that flowerbed countless times, but this time, having set my intention to notice, I saw something I’d never seen before.
Langer is right. Noticing is a path to mindfulness, one that doesn’t demand we squeeze yet one more thing into our crowded schedule. After all, it takes just as long to walk home mindlessly as it does mindfully.
In short, this practice, so simple yet effective, can help us live more like poets, awake to the radiant Reality that is always present if we take the time to see.