by Dan Nussbaum
I’m not that brave when it comes to taking physical risks. Sometimes I overestimate the danger. Once when I was a young teenager I watched a good part of a Saturday afternoon go by while I sat on the branch of a tree, afraid to jump off. I’d gotten up there easily enough but wouldn’t come down, even though I’d seen my friends do it without a care. When they got bored with waiting for me they left me alone to work up some courage.
Years later in New Zealand I faced the same kind of fear, but this time the danger was real. On my first day hiking the Hollyford Track in the southwest corner of the South Island I reached a gorge and a footbridge. The gorge dropped at least a hundred feet and while the bridge fit a technical definition of “bridge” it lacked some features I had always counted on. Stability. A structure.
Three steel cables stretched out across the gap. This was what they were passing off as a bridge. Two cables for hands to hold and one cable to walk on. And not thick cables, either. To my worried eyes they weren’t thicker than Tootsie Rolls. Unexpectedly I had found what could have been a learner’s tightrope. The handgrips would help, but even so every step would present a new opportunity for death. My backpack’s weight might make it hard for me to balance. On top of that, pre-internet, no one at home knew where I was. How long could I lie broken on the rocks before anyone found me? I would turn around.
Then it occurred to me that if New Zealand, a modern country with a court system that heard lawsuits, allowed a bridge like this to be offered to all comers, then I too could survive it. Of all the people who had gotten across, likely very few of them had been trained acrobats. You just had to pay attention. I would go on.
And so I had a mindful walk over the gorge. I placed one foot on the cable. I consciously lifted the other foot and put it down. I did it again. And again. I made sure the back foot was secure before I moved the front one. I didn’t think about what a good story this would make. I didn’t think about how brave I was now that I was doing it. I only thought about how and where to place my feet. Focus drove out the fear. The familiar stream of anxious thoughts dried up. Then I was across and my walking no longer required extreme concentration.
Any feat, any dangerous situation, or any activity demanding acute attention can lead to a joyous mind state. There’s only the concentration. You just are. It’s why people seek out vertical rock walls that bighorn sheep avoid.
Another time when the driver lost control of a car I rode in, I watched the world outside unfold so slowly I thought I’d acquired the super power of time stretching. While hurtling towards my death I was so mindful that if someone had put forward the dubious commentarial Buddhist idea that experience consists of infinitesimal atoms of time I would have said, “Yeah, I know.”
Even though in each event I was as mindful as I have ever been I can’t live like that. Yet some mindfulness teachers say that heightened attention should be brought to every waking moment. But nail clipping isn’t life threatening. Neither is sweeping the kitchen. To force myself into hyper-awareness with a broom in my hand would feel contrived.
And I think I’d miss things by doing that. I’ve had some good ideas come up while taking a shower with a wandering mind. Then again, I don’t always have good ideas in a shower. And I don’t make myself focus deliberately on the warmth, the pressure, the sound. Sometimes a shower is just a shower. I’d rather live my everyday life without turning it into a mindfulness challenge.
Increased mindfulness, which has great value, can come from a practice that doesn’t rely on concentration exercises. Extreme mindfulness comes as a result of unusual conditions, in and out of meditation. But it’s our own ordinary experience that offers us the chance to become more wise. When efforts to be mindful seek to transform what’s mundane into something else we may lose the chance to know our ordinary lives.