Mindfulness is all the rage – if that’s not a contradiction in terms. My headmaster, Anthony Seldon, is an advocate. As is David Cameron. As is the NHS: doctors are using mindfulness techniques to treat depression. Behind me, in Waterstones, there’s a table dedicated to this self-help category. But like most of our modern mind-body-soul fads, it’s not new at all. It goes back to ancient Buddhist traditions. It was written about time and again through the centuries. In the 19th century, one of my favourite philosophers, Ralph Waldo Emerson, stated: ‘What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us,’ – one of the best definitions of mindfulness I’ve come across.
I’d argue that mindfulness has an even earlier origin: that it took root the very first time a baby came into the world.
Babies know little of yesterday – they certainly don’t replay the past obsessively. And they know even less of tomorrow. They live, just as the advocates of mindfulness would have it, in the now. They won’t be rushed – try to hurry a baby out of the house because you’re late for an appointment and you’ll be defeated. They stare at shadows on the ceiling for hours. And they find endless joy observing the movements of your mouth, the sound of your voice, the expression in your eyes. They’re noticers. They are consumed by the present.
Busyness and our attachment to modern technology drags us away from the now. Often, I’ll spy on a couple having a coffee at a table beside me and one of them will be checking their phone – talking to the absent rather than concentrating on the flesh and blood person in front of them.
I’m not good at living in the present either. I hate wasting time. Waiting (my husband tells me that if I’d had the choice I would have cut my own umbilical chord.) I’m usually in a hurry. And rather than enjoying the moment I replay the past (incessantly, picking over it for things I could have done better) and I fret about the future (our house move…my second book…picking up teaching again…).
I tried meditation once and it drove me crazy: my brain fizzed with impatience.
In other words, I’m restless. My whole being resists mindfulness. Except when I’m with Tennessee.
My three month old baby girl requires so much concentration, so much moment by moment attention, that I have no energy left to give any thought to what has been or will be. She trains me, as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, to be sensorily alive to the world. To smell (sometimes the not so pleasant odours coming from her full nappy), to listen (to the timbre of her cry – hungry? tired? bored?), to touch (is there anything softer than a baby’s skin? more moving than the grip of her fingers around your thumb?), to see (her crooked smile, her brow furrowed in concentration as she grabs something, her growing eyelashes, a sudden roll onto her side, the crossing of her little feet), to taste (the temperature of her milk, the salt of her tears) and all this takes place moment by moment. A bit like the sea and flames, babies are magnetic – you can’t help but watch them. If I do happen to get distracted, to slip out of the present, Tennessee is quick to notice – and usually moans or kicks me back into the present.
Being with Tennessee is exhausting. But it makes me feel alive. And it’s good for my soul – because, as I live with her, in our shared moment, feeling rather than thinking, I experience what the psychologist, Mihlay Csiksentmihalyi calls ‘Flow’: the complete absorption in a task that forces us to lose oneself in the present.
That happens when I write too. Or if my writing goes well: those glorious days when I spend hours scribbling without looking up. And when I do look up, I get a jolt as I realise that the world around me has shifted – different characters sit at the tables around me in Costa, the sky is darker, there’s a hunger pang at the pit of my stomach that I hadn’t realised was there.
And so motherhood and being with my little Tennessee, primes me for living and for writing – mindfully.