It’s the 31st December 1900, and the English writer Thomas Hardy is not looking forward to the new century. In his poem ‘The Darkling Thrush’, he describes the wintery landscape as the ‘Century’s corpse outleant’, the wind is the ‘death lament’, and every spirit on earth seemed ‘fervourless’ as himself. Suddenly he is jolted out of his gloomy reverie by the bright and ‘full-hearted’ song of a frail and gaunt thrush. It comes so out of the blue, seems so unconnected with what he’s been experiencing, that Thomas Hardy sees the ‘happy good-night air’ of the bird as a sign of ‘blessed Hope’.
The time is 5.30 pm, and I’m sitting in heavy traffic at a red light. It hasn’t been a great day at work, and when I get home, I’ll have to spend a few more hours at the computer catching up on admin. I’m in no mood for the cars pressing in around me, the smog, the thumping stereo of the ute behind. And then I look up and see a group of black cockatoos, flying with their slow, distinctive majestic wing beats towards the nearby bushlands. It is a moment of magic, of delight, of feeling connected to nature in the midst of peak hour traffic.
It’s the day after 9/11, and everyone is walking around looking stunned. At the gym, an American woman asks the reception staff for news of a plane crash in the States, and I wonder who will be the one to tell her, ‘actually, it’s a lot worse than that.’ In the afternoon I teach piano at a school in Airport West, and the constant roar of planes coming in overhead, sounding as if they’re about to land on the roof, is particularly unpleasant that day. And then my four-year old student rushes in, his usual happy excited self, and his mother and I both smile with relief, cheered up by his simple, positive nature.
It’s often easy to get caught up in ruminative thinking, whether it’s the dawn of a new century, the stress and relentlessness of everyday routine, or being aware of terrible events taking place somewhere else in the world. Mindfulness asks us to be present with these difficult feelings, but to also keep ourselves open to little everyday events which can help redirect our attention to the here and now. This is not about telling someone who is going through a very difficult time to ‘snap out of it’. Rather, it’s becoming more flexible with our everyday moods. Mindfulness does not create these little moments, but it can allow us to be more receptive to them, to be open to letting them jolt us out of ruminative thinking into direct present-moment awareness.
Ruminative thinking can become our ‘default’ position, especially when we do actually have a lot on our minds. Sometimes it seems as if it would take a tremendous effort to lift us out of a negative mindset, when all that might be needed is the chirping of an old and scruffy bird. Afterwards, we may still experience some of the doom, the exhaustion or the grief, but we might also feel lighter, more present with our surroundings, less trapped in unhelpful thinking which only isolates us from the richness of our lives.
Weekly practice idea:
Be open this week to little mindfulness moments which can help when you’re caught up in ruminative thinking. Allow yourself to feel the shift in perspective in your body, and notice how this might be helpful.