Photo of zookeeper David Kessler by Logan Mock-Bunting
for The Washington Post

Last week, my partner and I spent five days and four nights in the hospital with our one-and-a-half-year-old kiddo. Little Bean has a congenital cyst that has now gotten infected twice since she was born. Once infected, she has to be on IV antibiotics and the cyst has to be surgically drained. Though thankfully not life-threatening or even life-altering, still, it was a stressful and tiring week. We took turns rotating at night between the (more comfortable) fold-out cot and the (less comfortable) recliner. I had to concentrate to remember what day it was when I put on the clothes I was wearing. When unexpected events like this hospitalization come our way, it was and is easy, so easy, to feel totally overwhelmed by everything else in our lives demanding our attention.

I know our general situation is not an unusual one. But someone I read about recently has me approaching it in a fresh way. I have always tended to be a fairly reflective person, wanting to fully process things, journal about it all, go to therapy in order to better understand myself and others, all of that. In the Unitarian Universalism congregations and communities I have grown up in, significant value is placed on developing self-awareness, on the “free and responsible search for truth on meaning.” I have taken that charge to heart by looking for the deeper meaning in everything that happens, constantly asking myself “what can I learn from this?” But what David Kessler’s story makes me wonder is: is it possible that sometimes self-reflection is not actually all-that-helpful? Might it be better, this time, to just focus on the tasks that need to be done?

I remember when I was in 11th grade, hurtling down the stairs in the morning and zipping off on my bike to a 7:20am “zero period” English Lit class. The mantra I would repeat to myself on those hectic mornings was simple: “don’t-think-don’t-think-don’t-think.” Sometimes there is good reason to engage in deep reflection and discernment about a decision or a transformative event in one’s life. And sometimes it’s best to just do the dishes, do the laundry, tackle the tax paperwork, and catch up on the details of life, acknowledging that we all get overwhelmed at times, and that is all that it means. In an age when “mindfulness” is frequently touted as the ideal state, I am aware that there is also still a place and time for keeping ourselves busy and trusting that there will be time for any necessary reflection later. Right now, perhaps what most needs to be done, to quote a much-loved Marge Piercy poem, is “to pass the bags along.”

  • donsalmon

    “mindfulness” is not “thinking about”. In fact, it is an antidote to the kind of rumination (often found among Unitarians -like myself:>)) that is a form of mindlessness (see Richard Dawkins, Peter Atkins, and other fundamaterialists for more examples!). Mindfulness – at its best, which may be rare – is non verbal, non judgmental, loving attention to what ever is occurring in the moment. At its most advanced (or perhaps simplest?) there is no self-consciousness whatsoever. One is so openly attentive to what is going on there is no room for that linguistically constructed conglomeration that we think of as our “self”.

    Just be – that’s all there is to mindfulness.