Getting to know you

July 11, 2022 Comments Off on Getting to know you

The main reason that we don’t have “enough” time is because the algorithm keeps us busy, from waking til bedtime. Checking emails, texts, #socmed, news, and of course watching videos, TV, movies, all these things fill up the time interstices between busybusy activities so that the day passes in a slurred blur. These activities, which are actually not active at all and are instead un-activities, things done seated and unmoving, are driven by the algorithm and they involve selling you items or having you work for the algorithm, for free.

Always being occupied and sedentary indoors means that our heads are always filled with thoughts. Being in a car, or sewed up in a motorcycle helmet are forms of being indoors, fyi. There is no down time, no period where thoughts stimulated by the algorithm simply go to bed and leave you alone. It’s not an accident. Once you stop thinking, you stop buying and you stop donating your time to the algorithm.

A vacant head is a prized and rare commodity. It’s so hard to come by that yogurt retreats, meditation, mindfulness camps, and the like charge a lot of money to help you vacuum out your brain and leave it a hollow vessel. Yet the odd thing is that an empty head, and all the benefits that flow with it, are yours for the price of engaging your senses.

What benefits?

The primary benefit of draining your mental swamp is that it allows happy, positive thoughts to flow into the void. Those thoughts aren’t the kind of positive thinking associated with self-help, such as “Try to find the good side to that asshole.” They are thoughts whose very nature is positive. They don’t put a good spin on bad things, they are inherently good thoughts that spread a sense of well-being throughout all connected thoughts and to the body.

Such a practical kind of nirvana simply requires you to use your senses first instead of thinking. There are countless ways to do this, and they all involve being outdoors. Simply listen for birdsong, for example. Or simply look at a tree in order to discern its type and shape. Breathe the scent of flowers in order to discriminate the smell. Walk shoeless to determine what is beneath your feet.

When the senses are engaged in order to observer/discern/understand the natural world, whether it be a cloud, a stone, a river, a mountain, a bird, or a flower, all other thoughts are erased. You cannot think an anxious or negative thought about that nasty tweet while you are staring at a leaf and trying to figure out what the ant is doing on it. To the contrary, the moment you focus your senses first on sensing, the resulting thoughts will be completely focused on trying to unravel and interpret what you have seen, heard, felt, or smelled.

I recently, happily and peacefully, spent the better part of an afternoon watching ants cut apart and haul away a pile of dead flies that I’d swatted with a rag.

Thoughts evolved from the perception of stimuli. The moment you force your senses to do their job by immersing them in the outdoor environment, they will quickly take over the cognitive faculty of thinking. This makes sense. All organisms evolved senses in order to guide behavior, either through unconscious thought in the form of instinct, or conscious thought in the form of what we call thinking. The brain, by directing its senses to natural stimuli, subjugates the mind, forcing it to consider and interpret those stimuli to the exclusion of everything else.

What seems like a simple thing, focusing your senses on natural stimuli, releases your mind from the psychosocial stresses caused by artificial stressors such as news, gossip, #socmed, even stresses caused by interpersonal interactions. It’s not necessary to study under a yogi or to attend a yogurt retreat in order to clear your mind. All you have to do is engage your senses.

For most people it’s quite difficult because when they are outdoors, they are still focused on the thoughts in their head. Perhaps they’re jogging along a beautiful coast line or bicycling up to a marvelous ridge, yet they don’t “see” any of it. They’re still pissed about that nasty blog post they read or the news of the day’s fifth school shooting, or they’re sad because their Instagram post didn’t get enough likes. Maybe they’re fixating on a work relationship headache, stressing over bills, or fuming over a partner’s bad behavior.

The key is to simply use your senses. Looking at any natural feature, be it a tree, a bird, or a landscape, and trying to interpret what you’re seeing will scrub your mind clean of everything else. With practice you’ll learn to banish bad thoughts by engaging smell, hearing, vision, touch, sometimes even taste.

As you learn to subjugate your mind to your brain’s use of the senses, you’ll notice a concomitant drop in the desire to be entertained. You’ll start becoming disinterested in what other people think, say, or do. You’ll find that gradually you have more and more time each day, not less. You’ll find that watching birds scuffle at the feeder, or listening to the wind in the branches will be, well, fascinating.

You’ll also find that activities you once engaged in for the sake of the activity have become vectors for sensory perception and therefore positive thought. In my experience, using my eyes and ears when I ride in order to understand and interpret natural phenomena makes it irrelevant where I ride, how fast, or for how long. Being outside and being receptive to the outdoors and its sights, sounds, and smells makes every bike ride a PR that is littered with infinite KOMs.

How long can you sit outdoors? When you’re training your senses on the natural circus all ’round you, there’s virtually no limit beyond hunger, weather, and the need for sleep. Moreover, being still and focusing on perception, rather than on worries/anxieties/thoughts, puts you in extraordinary touch with your surroundings and the things that inhabit it. In short, it allows you really and truly to get to know your world, whether it’s the expanse of the sea or a tiny postage stamp of a backyard, a park or a night sky.

This morning I decided to interrupt my perceptions for about ten minutes during that brief window when the sun first breaks over the eastern peaks. That’s when everything assumes the most incredibly dramatic coloring, when, to take a picture, you need neither skill nor even much knowledge. Point and shoot, and the sideways sun will do everything else.

These pictures are really nothing more than an infinitely narrow slice of what I perceive when I sit out on my prayer mat, warding off prayers and drinking coffee as I watch, listen, and smell the opening day. In the forty-five minutes before sunrise so much happens that it’s scarcely possible to even sketch it. There is the false dawn, a contemplative wonder in its own right, and there are the individual sounds of mourning doves, ravens, house finches, house sparrows, acorn woodpeckers, wild turkeys, barking dogs, titmice, scrub jays, ash-throated flycatchers, Eurasian collared doves, white-breasted nuthatches, a horse, Bullock’s orioles, a California towhee, bushtits foraging through the oaks. There are the shapes and colors of oak and pine, of spreading juniper, pitch-covered pine cones, of stones, rocks, leaves, needles, grass, seed-heavy weeds, up-thrusting infant trees just out of the acorn, deer tracks, delicate flowers, burn scars, a jay feather floating in the bird bath …

When commanded to perceive, your senses take in so much so quickly that your mind can only barely keep up, but it can keep up. What it dispenses with are the thoughts, the swirling worries and anxieties that spend so much time living rent-free in the spaces of your head.

Of course the more you see, hear, and smell, the more you know a thing. Whether you know its common name, its scientific name, or no name at all, the perception of the thing places it in your mind and makes it familiar, knowable, something real in a way that no #socmed post ever is, or ever can be real. Perceived stimuli are the ultimate anti-algorithm.

Here’s one small example of how engaging vision can make a thing knowable, close, personal, intimate.

Last year I was walking around the yard, watering things. Growing out of some rocks was a small oak. It was feeble, had few leaves left, and appeared to be on its way out. I sneered at it. “You need to toughen the fuck up,” I said, dousing it with the hose.

Then I looked at it more closely. It had been cut down to the stump and yet grown back. It was surviving, barely, with no water and no help in a harsh, incredibly arid and shade-less environment. Toughen up? This small plant had more toughness, resilience, and will to live than any human I’ve ever met. And here I was, a fat, lazy, well-fed person insulting its survival?

The more I looked and saw how brutal its existence, the more I began to love it. I apologized to it for calling it names. I apologized to it for insulting its struggle. And I promised to respect its struggle and become its friend.

From that day, each time I watered I took especial care to give a large portion to this tiny oak. I called it my baby and encouraged it. “You won’t die for lack of water, not on my watch,” I vowed.

And scarcely a year later it had transformed. It was full, thick, bushy, busting out with green leaves. And each time I see it, I see it. I look and try to understand what I’m seeing. Those moments of perception push out all thoughts except interpreting what’s before my eyes. Is it bigger? More leaves? Healthier? Does it have enough water?

Multiply this familiarity with the other trees, stones, birds, mountain peaks, with the mountain ridges, the false dawn, the true dawn, the barking dogs and grunting pig, and my mind fills with positivity that no like, no kudo, no fake piece of the algorithm can ever approach.

Well, anyway … it works for me.


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