This morning, I was surprised as I sat in my living room with the door open, the fresh scent of moist, cool air wafting through the door. Hearing finches chirping and hummingbirds buzzing within an unusual silence void of traffic sounds, my senses transported me back to a brisk morning when I rose early and emerged from my tent to pause beneath the jack pines and cedars near the lake’s edge, just after graduating from college and working as a canoe guide and counselor out of Wilderness Canoe Base. Sitting in my living room, I was transported to that wilderness, a place where we lived one moment at a time, prepared for but not dwelling on the next. At times, life was blissful as the sun shone and we floated gently on the lakes. But life was equally dangerous – we could be days away and without means of communication to any civilization when torrents of rain and whipping waves threatened hypothermia for the unprepared. We depended upon one another. What characterized the wilderness was a combination of simplicity, preparedness and a timeless spaciousness.
Right now for us, time is taking on a new character. As we transition to spaces in which we will spend the coming weeks and secure devices configured to meet remotely – with preparedness, teamwork and simplicity, we can enter a timeless spaciousness.
Whether or not you have a practice of mindfulness or care to, there is some practical truth in the premise of mindfulness: that we are not often living in the present. We can be so anxious about the future that our mind is off spinning stories and catastrophizing. We subsequently experience anxiety or anger or fear caused purely by what we’re thinking (not by reality – the future is not here yet), accompanied by physical effects that lower our immune system and interrupt our sleep. We do the same when we replay a past event as if we’re watching a movie on a constant loop, causing emotional and physical reactions to something that is already past.
All the while – what is happening in the present? We can reflect: is someone speaking to me in person or on Zoom? Is the sun shining or are there unique cloud formations above me? Am I really focused on what is present for me: a decision to make, a research problem to solve, a paper to write or grade, caring for my own health, a conversation or shared meal, music playing, time relaxing, reaching out for help, people around me who may have greater needs than I do that I might meet?
Philosophical and religious writings are filled with wisdom about the uncertainty of life, calling certainty an illusion. Scientific research today validates this wisdom, that being present and trusting in the midst of uncertainty physiologically shifts our brain function and increases our health and resilience. We all know at some level that there is no guarantee we will live another day, or that our world will be the same tomorrow as today. The Buddha called this truth impermanence. Muslims acknowledge this every time one repeats “insha’Allah,” meaning “God willing, it will happen” when referring to a future event. Christians call it faith, and repeat the words of Jesus reminding them the birds of the air who neither sow nor reap are cared for, and so will you be. Taking Sabbath in Judaism is an opportunity to cease normal preoccupations that fill one’s time, to be present and in accord with time.
I hope you look for your wilderness – that spaciousness that you can rest within, once your routine is changed and movements are minimized. Allow yourself to be truly present. Look for ways you can care for yourself, reach out to loved ones, simplify, practice kindness. Drop deeply into research or something you really want to learn or create. Look around, noticing who may need you, what you have to offer someone else who is struggling right now in this deeply uncertain time. Move gently into your wilderness as we adjust to this new normal together.
Blessings to you all.
Dr. Gail Stearns, Dean, Wallace All Faiths Chapel