On mindfulness (and nosefulness)

This week, I’m driving up and down, up and down the same twenty-mile strip of road every day. I was getting terribly bored, even though the car is stocked with a CD flip folder of the complete works of Pavement (I dunno).

So I decided to stick my head out the window and see what I could smell as I drove and drove and drove. And there I was! Wet pavement, hot pavement, hot dust, dry dust, several kinds of pine, mold and mildew, wood fires, wood chips, wet wood chips, all manner of sweet grasses and sweet and spicy weeds, lighter fluid, and, in one lonely sumac grove, a startling cloud of chicken pot pie. So many invisible, disembodied, very insistent presences ready to be named as I hurtled past them down the highway.
Strangest of all was when I couldn’t smell anything for minutes at a time. I could see with my eyes that there were things to smell: shining bogs, waving clusters of chicory, downed pine logs abandoned in piles and overcome with wild grapes and clematis. But no smell, just the everyday air. Either they somehow cancelled each other out in some kind of arcane chemical process, or else they smelled of something I live with day to day and don’t recognize as a thing anymore. I sniffed and sniffed when I didn’t smell anything, but I didn’t get anywhere. I was seized with a desire to change that, to know exactly where I am, nosewise.
This olfactory walkabout made the ride fly by; and it’s also a pleasant way of practicing mindfulness, which in its basic form just means choosing not to skim heedlessly over the surface of your day, but to deliberately root yourself in the world and moment you’ve been given. Happily, olfactory mindfulness also brings extra oxygen up into your brain, which never hurts (assuming the air is clean).
I was glad to happen across this way of spending time because I waste and disregard and scroll past so much of my life, and I want to do that less. It’s a beautiful world, and you can choose to gratefully, actively partake of that beauty, or you can choose to let it slip by.
But also, the last several weeks have been intensely stressful for several reasons. I sometimes find myself panicking without really knowing why. Habits of mindfulness, olfactory and otherwise, help enormously. When I stop and decide to practice mindfulness, I don’t try to figure out or solve anything; I just mentally pause and deliberately name all the things I’m feeling as I hurtle down he road. No judging, just categorizing. If I feel guilty for feeling something, then that gets named and put on the list, too.
Then, once I’ve taken a few minutes to narrow in on the best possible words to describe the top five things I’m feeling . . . they often sit back and let me deal with them. It’s like sorting a nightmarish mountain of dirty dishes into tidy stacks of plates and bowls: You still have to wash them, but my goodness, it’s suddenly a manageable task, rather than overwhelming chaos.
Sometimes, once you’ve sorted everything, the task ahead of you turns out to be not as bad as it looks; sometimes there was a lot of empty space in between pots and pans, and the actual workload is much smaller than you thought; and very often, a few things can be dispensed of with a quick rinse, and then you’re done with them.
Then maybe you do come across a grisly, blistered old broiler pan that’s going to take some extra work, if it can be salvaged at all. Well, you’ll feel a lot more at peace about letting it soak a little longer once you’ve cleared away the easier stuff. But you won’t be able to tell which is which until you pause and do a little sorting, naming.
And yes, breathing helps. Get more oxygen into your brain. It may not make you feel calmer right away, but it will help you think clearly. Mindfulness is not a substitute for prayer or for a spiritual life (and there’s nothing especially eastern or pagan about it, even if your posture while you’re being mindful happens to resemble a downhearted dog or whatever); but it serves your spiritual life very well. It’s easier to pray once you’re calm and know clearly what is on your mind, and it’s easier to speak to God once you’ve rooted yourself, with attention and gratitude, in the world He’s given you. Including the smells!

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10 thoughts on “On mindfulness (and nosefulness)”

  1. Just reading the comments here while making some divine beans that smell like heaven somewhere.

    Mindfulness is good. It reels me back in when my thoughts want to take me for a wild upside down ride.

    Yoga was so good until the downcast dog made my eyeballs explode regularly. I’d like to try it again without the high heat.

    I have some posters in my room that my son tacked, tackily to the walls when I was gone. At first I was offended because of his presumption. Two of the posters are blown up pictures of old Botany handbooks. They’re beautiful. I couldn’t stay offended, even with the thumbtacks. The third poster is of an ancient Hindu god surrounded by intricate …I don’t know–nature stuff. It’s also beautiful, except for the Hindu person has very unattractive, stretched out earlobes. He or she looks like they have stigmata oddly enough. I do worry that I have kept it up on the wall–partly because I don’t want my son to transfer it to his bedroom wall, and partly because Catholics have told me that…I’m not sure –does it open some shaft to hell? I guess I was waiting to feel some kind of hellish heat so I could have a good enough reason to take it down. So far so good.

    Smells also move me profoundly. The smell of the ocean makes me happy and emotional, but the fog through the redwoods makes me nearly ecstatic. There is a certain hair product that brings me right back to 1991 Paris. The memories it brings back are strange and powerful. The 19th arrondisemont is not high on my list of places to revisit however.

      1. So this dude actually *invented* Bikram yoga?? Wow. Smart guy.

        You know, it’s fascinating on several levels because:

        a. After watching that Bagwan Rashneesh series on Netflix, I’m now thinking that all I need to do to make millions of dollars is to start my own cult. –Convince my husband to feign an accent/Indian heritage, and offer people a new path to spiritual enlightenment.

        b. I always felt like the extreme heat of Bikram was possibly a brilliant trick. They torture you, with raucous music, and excessive movement, make everyone sweat provocatively in front of each other and then slow it down right when you think you will die. Then they start to be extra nice to you. You feel so grateful that they aren’t torturing you anymore that a state of happiness begins to overwhelm you.–Now they’re your sweet spirit guide, talking like the gentle Mama you never had. They get you to curl up into the fetal position and mist you with lavender water while playing soothing zen spa music. Occasionally they come by and pet you like an obedient child. This transitions to your kind therapist who is asking you in a sweet baby voice to let go of all negativity, and to embrace gratitude. You breathe the yuckies out, and take in the lovely fresh air from the door they have just opened to the lobby.

        You are so utterly grateful that they have turned the heat down, that you would do anything to please them at that point, including signing over the $250 bucks a month to have a pain triggered endorphin rush every day.

        The showers have knock off Aveda shampoo that smells amazing, and you walk out of there feeling completely purged.

        Simply brilliant.

  2. Thank you for addressing this topic. Mindfulness has been a focus at my son’s elementary school this past year, and I have been concerned about it. It reminded me of yoga and I was afraid that it had roots in Eastern spiritualism. But I trust your judgment and your faithfulness to Church teaching, so if you don’t see any relation to yoga, that’s one less battle I have to fight at school for the upcoming year.

    1. It does have roots in Eastern spirituality. I would encourage you to do some more looking into it. Try the book A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness by Susan Brinkman.

      1. Are you saying that breathing slowly and thinking “ooh, pine” has its roots in Eastern spirituality?

        1. Sure – why not?

          The thing is that throughout all of human history, all sorts of practices have developed in all sorts of cultures. Since we are all human beings with a common palette of design options, it’s very likely that some of these practices (such as mindfulness) will benefit people outside of the specific culture of origin. It’s a great thing to be able to learn from each other this way.

          Another way to think about it – I’m sure no one would bat an eye if someone from southern India or inner Mongolia found that, say, the Tridentine Mass and Gregorian Chant (elements of OUR culture) really spoke to them. Why should it bother us that things like mindfulness get imported into our culture?

          1. I’m not an alarmist about these things, but I think it makes sense to look closely at what, exactly, it is we’re adopting before we get too invested. Eastern religions and cultures of course have many good things to offer, but also many things which are not compatible with our Faith. So I have no problem with letting my kindergartener do yoga exercises as stretching at school. I would have a problem if the teacher taught her to pray during yoga or to recite secret mantras.

            There *is* such a thing as a kind of mindfulness which is not compatible with Catholicism; but what I describe in my essay
            is, of course, completely compatible. It would probably just be simpler if we came up with another word besides “mindfulness,” since so many people seem to get hung up on the associations it has.

  3. “Downhearted dog” – ha! That’s me and yoga for sure. I just can’t even, even when I try.

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