One of the reasons I chose to do my undergrad at Queen’s University (in Kingston, Ontario) was the beauty of its campus. The ivy-covered limestone buildings filled with me a romantic vision of what a student’s life should be. I imaged myself strolling to class among these majestic white castles or languidly reclining on the deep green lawns, ivy covered limestone surrounding me, as I perused my latest textbook.
Come October 2004, the second month of my first semester at Queen’s, I was so encompassed by the stress and busy-ness of a life sciences degree that I no longer paid any attention to the beauty of my surroundings, but spent my time in crowded lecture theatres, library basements and sweaty, outdated gyms. I could have been studying in a dungeon for all I cared.
I experience that frequently. My mind is often ahead of and away from my body as I perform my daily tasks of living, commuting, walking or even recreational activities. The fullness of my life often takes over the present moment and my mind is elsewhere, out of bodied, contemplating the past, future or an alternate universe, but rarely here, in the present moment, in the space and surroundings that my body is occupying. It’s as if my mind is a kite, dancing above my body while being whipped around by the wind and tethered to my flesh by nothing more than a thread.
This summer I am excited for the opportunity to take a course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) a school of practical meditation developed by John Kabat-Zinn. In this course we are encouraged to practice daily mindfulness meditation, observing what our minds do, while attempting to bring our awareness to the present moment. After all, there is no time in our lives but now and, if we focus on anything but the present, our lives pass us by without us ever having lived them.
I usually take the subway to and from my North York school in a very dazed attitude of mindlessness. During this time, I’m reading, deleting emails on my cellphone or staring straight ahead in a glass-eyed, semi-comatose state. My mind is frequently onto the next step of the commute – on the top of the staircase, while my body is currently still at the bottom, or out of the subway car while my physical self is still in it. My commute is a mindless waste of 2-3 hours of my day, which could otherwise serve as an excellent opportunity to practice mindfulness.
So, last Friday, as I was standing up in anticipation of the subway car rolling into my home station, looking forward to relaxing at home with a tea after a busy week, my mind shifted to the present moment. I felt my feet under me, my legs responding to the jolts and shudders of the moving train beneath them. I felt my hand on the pole, saw the people around me (most of whom wore the same glassy-eyed, vacant expression I usually don while commuting) and the inside of the subway car. I felt a strange, unfamiliar sensation of being in the subway. Of being here. When the doors opened I felt each step as a I exited the car. I felt my body leave the car and enter the station, the walls around me, the staircase ahead of me, other bodies behind and to the sides of me.
At this point I usually book it up the stairs, my mind on other things, forming a to-do list or even a have-done, shouldn’t-have done or would do list. This time I experienced each step, felt the movement of my body, the stairs under each foot, the three-dimensional space around me that encompassed my physical body. It made me feel small and slightly insignificant but ever so present and alive.
When I exited the station, I felt the cool night air on my skin, appreciated the beauty of the still-lit shop signs, the lights of the church bell tower, which gave the street a mysterious glow, mixing new and old. I noticed a new apartment building that reminded me of Paris. I realized my mind was wandering and gently brought it back to the present, to my feet rooted firmly on the ground as I waited for the light to change to cross the street.
My nose picked up the faint smell of espresso beans, and the pungent whiff of stale firework smoke, lit by eager Victoria Day celebrators. The fireworks’ short-lived moment of joy and adoration was over, the glory of their short existence evidenced by a sharp, warm smell.
I saw the trees and bushes as I passed, my spirit cemented into my physical body. Oftentimes I walk with my mind disembodied, already 10 steps ahead, my hand on the key in my pocket, my head already inside my house. This night I was beside the bushes, I was on the street, I was inside the night. I could feel, smell, hear and see everything around me. Now and then my mind would wander to other places and times and, when I realized it had, I would gently bring it back to the present. The here and now.
When I finally arrived home it was no sooner or later than I would have otherwise, but the experience of the walk home felt more substantial, not longer, but more whole. I felt alive and present and I also felt a deep satisfaction of having fully experienced the past 15 minutes. I felt content, calm and happy. Perhaps there is something to this mindfulness business after all.