I have mixed feelings about mindfulness. I was thinking about this when I was running across Dundee the other day. It was very cold and grey, and everything was so dim that it pushed me back into my head. Even the leaves were doing that to me: the leaves on the trees in Dudhope Park which had been glowing in wonderful golds, greens, and reds just a few days ago. Now, their colours were vague, like they were trapped underneath a few layers of tracing paper. Nothing was clear enough to look at for long.
It can be easy to rush through life without stopping to notice much. Paying more attention to the present moment – to your own thoughts and feelings, and to the world around you – can improve your mental wellbeing.
I first learned about Mindfulness a few years ago from a Counsellor I was seeing because I was stressed. She told me that Mindfulness could help me; so, I tried it out and it made me feel better. It never made stress vanish entirely and it was no match for the mega-stress of bereavement or my fear that a vulnerable person I was helping might end it all, but it made everyday stress easier to cope with.
My mixed feelings about Mindfulness come from reading statements by politicians and pseudo-experts claiming a power for Mindfulness that it doesn’t have. They tried to say that: people in poverty or suffering from disabilities and illnesses could always feel better through a mixture of Mindfulness, positive-thinking, and accepting any benefit cuts which had reduced their will to live. Toxic lies.
When I was running through the nothingness of the park, thinking about Mindfulness, I was jogging slowly because it’s only a few weeks since I started getting fit again, and my right ankle was a bit strained from slamming it down too hard on a gym treadmill. So, I didn’t want to make the pain worse. Not running wasn’t an option: I needed the unwinding that only running can give me. Slowly, the rhythm of running began it’s magic. I felt tension in my back and neck muscles loosening as I began to become aware of my feet padding along the path and little clouds of breath forming in front of me and trailing away, like I was a human Thomas the Tank Engine.
I remembered, as I started running down a hill, an idea from Mindfulness – that you should allow any thoughts to come and go as they pop up in your mind; not fighting against any thought, however negative, but also not holding on to it. You might say to yourself: “That’s fine, that’s just a thought about my work; I don’t need to do anything about it immediately, I’ll just let it come and go.” This is especially useful when you are plagued by worries and doubts like: “I’ll never be good enough!” or “Something is bound to go wrong!” Instead of grasping on to these thoughts and manufacturing long chains of worries, which drag you down, you let them go.
So, bits of my life loomed up out of the nothingness of the park, and thoughts came to me and chattered in my mind as I ran, and I neither fought the thoughts nor held on to them. I let the thoughts come and go. My mum dying…a bleak crematorium…letting each thought arise in my mind as I ran and being aware of tightening in my stomach muscles as the bad feeling came…and I kept running on, and I thought: that’s okay, it’s just a thought, it’s just a feeling, it doesn’t control me…and it came and went and another thought took it’s place: something about maltesers. Where did that come from?
Without noticing, I’d turned at the bottom of one hill and began slowly running up a gentler hill with big trees overhanging, passing Dudhope Castle on one side and an old cannon on the other. I had a fleeting thought of a huge train-set on the top floor of the castle, with miniature hills and a station and tiny people. At last, I’d begun to heat up a little as I reached a long, flat part of the path and ran towards a line of grey trees with leafless, spindly branches stretched over the path. (Later, I remembered some of the types of trees that Dudhope Park has, including elms and weeping ashes along the Lochee Road. But in the nothingness that morning, the trees were just trees. Grey trees.)
It was then that I saw the squirrel. I stopped, and we stared at each other. It was sitting on a branch just above where I stood. I grinned and said hello. The squirrel’s eyes got bigger and brighter, like a child caught stealing sweets and not moving at all, as if staying still would make it invisible. The squirrel’s big, bushy tail quivered. Tiny paws were tightly clenched. It’s grey fur was somehow brighter than all of the grey surrounding us.
Then, the squirrel twitched, and it bobbed along the branch, around the trunk of the tree, and it was gone. I started running again.
To expect to see nothing and then see something worth remembering forever is part of the wonder of being alive. It’s not something we can control: you can’t make the unexpected happen! Although, your chances of appreciating it when it does happen are greatly improved if you keep your eyes open. This has the additional perk of avoiding painful collisions with trees. Or, with small white Scottie dogs.
Later that same day, when my thoughts had stopped scurrying around like manic squirrels on speed, I wondered a bit about – Wonder.
Wonder has always been important to me. One day, a long time ago, I was about 10 years old, walking across a small bridge in Monifieth with my mum. About halfway across the bridge, at exactly the same moment, we carefully stepped over an obstacle. Then, we stared at each other with amazed, squirrel-wide eyes. And we laughed. There was no obstacle! We’d both stepped over something completely invisible. For years, the incident was recalled in conversations; and never explained.
Ordinary Wonders don’t always need explanations. Sometimes, it’s enough to know we were a part of them. And they remain a part of us.
The day which started with a run and a squirrel continued with a few other Ordinary Wonders. I went with Isobel to a Christmas Fayre at Blackness Primary School. It’s a huge, late 19th Century building, with shiny tiled stairways and dark wood doors and bannisters. The halls and classrooms were packed with adults and children buying cakes and tombola and raffle tickets. I managed not to spill my drink at a low table in the school café. I’m not usually so lucky. We bought Christmas decorations made by children out of card and tinsel and beads. Everywhere, children were coming in and out of rooms, and dragging parents around to see things, and they all looked much happier than in the big shopping centres in the heart of Dundee. Here, their surroundings belonged to them. Grew out of them. On one classroom door, there were children’s drawings of themselves: balloon faces, and a sign by a teacher about every child being the future.
Later, we went to see a feature-length documentary film, in Dundee Contemporary Arts. The film was: Won’t You Be My Neighbour (2018). Directed by Morgan Neville, it was a perfect 90 minutes about Fred Rogers who made TV programmes for children in the USA for 30 years. Wearing cardigans and using tacky old puppets, Fred Rogers succeeded in speaking to children about important issues, including bullying, death, and having the right to be loved just for who you are.
I’d come across Fred Rogers only once before – when I saw a clip from a US Senate Committee hearing about public television. Speaking in front of a Committee Chair who was previously opposed to additional public funding, Rogers spoke passionately about the power of television to help children develop. By the end of his contribution, the Senator was convinced. There was probably more to it than that speech, but for a moment it was like hearing a real character who could have been/ should have been played by James Stewart, in a movie.
There’s a lot of wonder in the world. It can be hard to see and we can easily miss it because of all the grey or because of terrible things happening. But sometimes…