We are not wired for living “mindfully” in the moment, folks! We are not wired for living “mindfully” in the moment, folks!
Before followers of Richard Rohr’s “living in the now” or mindfulness devotees get upset about this blog’s subtitle, let me clarify what I mean by all that later in this blog. But first let me tell you about my recent nostalgic trip to visit a dear friend in the Poconos … truly a journey of sweet memories.
Last week I traveled to northeast Pennsylvania, to a little town in the Poconos called Hawley. To get there, you follow I-81 up and up past Harrisburg, around Scranton, and then onto I-84 east until you get to the local roads that take you to Hawley – originally settled in the early 19th century as a railroad town on the confluence of three rivers. For many years this was a destination for my husband, Bud, who owned a cabin on Lake Wallenpaupack. We traveled that way twice each summer: Once to open the cabin, and once again to close it down. In our time there, I met some of Bud’s closest friends, including a now-dear friend of mine named Peg.
After Bud died, I wasn’t sure I would travel back to Hawley, but somehow the summers didn’t seem complete without that visit. And so again this summer I drove up there, staying at our favorite Inn called Settlers (see the lead photo and the first one below), spending delightful hours with Peg who has a spacious “cabin” right on the lake.
Allow me to take you along on a little photo tour of that lovely visit. Every morning before breakfast, I would walk to the nearby Sunoco gas station, hoping to snatch one of the two daily copies of The New York Times delivered to their newsstand. Got one every morning but one! Then I’d walk directly back to the Inn, where breakfast in the dining room awaited. After breakfast, I’d check in with Peg and then get some exercise by walking the few blocks into town.
The sidewalk that crossed the old railroad tracks and bent toward downtown passed over one of the rivers running through the town (next photo shot), and once around the bend, the three-block walk took me into downtown Hawley, pictured next. After making my way through the four-block (or so) downtown area, greeting folks strolling or sitting on benches along the way, I’d head back across the bridge and railroad tracks, turning into Bingham Park across the way from the Inn. A nice little tree-lined road winding along the back of the park (next shot) gave me a feeling of walking along a country road in summer. Finally, I’d head out to Peg’s and the next two photos show first, the magnificent view of the lake from her deck, and then a photo of Peg and me taken by Peg’s neighbor, followed by the final photo in this series, which was taken at a jazz dinner at the Inn mid-week – where Peg and I listened to a fantastic trombone player who led the small jazz band in a great evening of music.
Last year when I was in Hawley and as I drove away to begin the trek home, I thought that “I shall not come this way again.” In fact, I think I wrote a blog to that effect. But again, this summer came and I wanted to go back – indeed, was drawn back by precious memories that the trip always holds for me. Because you see, as I travel back on this memory lane, I am not alone. Bud is with me on the way, sitting across from me on the balcony of our motel in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania – the same room where we always stayed; sitting with me on the porch of Settlers Inn, sipping champagne before dinner, having lunch with me at John’s Italian Restaurant in Hamlin as we draw near to our Hawley destination, walking with me across the railroad tracks and stopping to look at the river below.
Now of course Bud is with me only in my memory, made vivid again by the places we visited. Whether he is also with me in some other spiritual way, God alone knows, but I hope so. In any case, his memory accompanies me as I make our annual trek to this northern town in the Poconos. Which brings me to the subtitle of this blog and an observation about how our brains are wired, or rather, perhaps how they are not wired to mindfully live in the moment only.
A couple of months ago I ran across an op-ed piece in The New York Times written by a well-known psychologist and former research collaborator of mine when I was on the faculty at the University of Pittsburgh: Martin Seligman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The piece was co-written by a Times columnist by the name of John Tierney. The title of the piece is, “We Aren’t Built to Live in the Moment.” In it the authors emphasize our unique power to lean into the future; that the future draws us forward allowing us to anticipate, solve problems, construct social space and whole societies. They say “the [unique] power of prospection is what makes us wise. Looking into the future, consciously and unconsciously, is a central function of our large brain, as psychologists and neuroscientists have discovered …”
In fact (and not to get too boringly technical), before the neuroscientists got on board here, philosophers for decades have viewed the nature of human consciousness as essentially temporal, with our present perception colored by memories (and memories re-colored by present experience), and our Now also expanded by our expectations – our leaning into our future lives. In short, our conscious and unconscious perception has a narrative structure to it – a past, present, and future, completely integrated into waking and dreaming experience.
In commenting about the topic of “mindfulness” in my recent book, I observe the following:
The ideal of an atemporal, nonreactive life is not finally humanly attainable, or frankly, even desirable. Thus, in my view (and I hope I’m not being totally unfair here) some of the ideal end states described in the mindfulness literature – unless you’re a monk living in Tibet – are not based on a sound understanding of human consciousness, but on an idea imported from Eastern cultures and the meditative practices of those who devote their lives to reaching Nirvana. (The Fiction of Our Lives, p. 113)
Now, not to be totally misunderstood here as one who embraces meditative practices, silence, and solitude on occasion, I do believe it is both possible and desirable – with practice – to “expand” our Now by working to screen out the “monkey-brain” thoughts, memories, plans, worries, etc. that divert our attention, blocking our opening ourselves to Beauty, Peace, even prayerful Transcendence – what early Christian monks called “watchfulness.” But nevertheless, our human brains are wired in such a way that this practice often fails to screen out the wide, temporal world of our experience. We are wired to live in a narrative universe of past and future, and thank God for that.
So I will next go off to my mountain hideaway in a couple of weeks to seek solitude and peace, taking with me all my hopes and memories. So stay tuned folks, and I’ll let you know what emerges when rest, hiking, solitude and reflection expand my Now in the process.