A few years ago, while travelling through South Carolina, I was touring an old barn when I noticed, above me in the ceiling, a large bird was frantically trying to escape the barn. The bird continued to fly into the closed window in its frantic desire to escape the barn. Attempt after attempt, nothing changed for the bird. It flew towards the closed window, smashed into the window, and once again flew into the closed window. Presumably unbeknownst to this anxious bird, the barn doors, one on each end of the barn, were wide open! Had the frantic bird simply stopped a moment to observe its surroundings, it would have noticed a very easy escape into the freedom of the outside sky. Yet, the bird was so focused on the task in front of it that it failed to see any alternate options.
I mention this story as I recalled it a couple days ago while at my house. I happened upon a butterfly, who, in similar manner to the bird I described above, was frantically flying against a screen on my porch in an attempt to escape the enclosure. Also, similarly to the story above, immediately behind the butterfly was the open door. Yet, as in the story of the bird, the butterfly also did not pause to observe its surroundings. Instead, the butterfly continued flying into the screen (as a side note, I did help the butterfly to escape).
I empathize with both the bird and the butterfly for I too have found myself “banging my head” against that fictitious window or screen in an attempt to either change my life's course or to escape some emotion which I was not willing to face. It has taken decades for me to begin to learn of the benefits of living in the moment and simply be.
In my writings and public speaking I talk often of mindfulness. This is a state of active, open attention on the present. Carefully observing your thoughts and feelings without judging them good or bad. Mindfulness means living in the moment, aware of your current experience, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. As I reflect on the bird and butterfly I realize that I am not much different from them in that I tend to allow my emotions and crisis moments to take control of my focus. Yet, in my focused awareness (mindfulness), I’m able to see solutions; to see hope.
My journey from a life of harried busyness and much stress, to a life of mindful reflection and life coaching, did not come easily. I began to slowly, over time, realize that banging my head on closed window or a screen was getting me nothing but a headache. It took strength to to stop myself long enough to desire to look around at my world. Once I stopped and looked around, I noticed options and solutions in my life.
The insightful and wise Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book “The Art of Mindfulness”, reflects on what he calls the “Five Mindfulness Trainings”. These “trainings” are intended to guide us to be mindful of ourselves, our pain, and the world around us. Many of us, myself included, purposefully use electronic devices, reading materials, and sometimes even exercise, as a means of distracting ourselves from our reality. As with the bird and the butterfly, not stopping to notice our world does not give the freedom for which we seek.
Here are the “Five Mindfulness Trainings” from Thich Nhat Hanh:
- True love
- Deep listening
- Cultivating good health
When we do our best to accomplish these five trainings, we have set up our thoughts and actions to be mindful, in a state of active, open attention on the present. These trainings are not meant solely for others, that is, not that we only give to others our compassion, generosity, love, listening, and health; but that we give these to ourselves as well.
In mindful awareness we need to be compassionate with ourselves, generous to ourselves, loving oneself, listening to our mind and our body, and give ourselves good health. In taking care of ourselves in this way will we achieve a deep and true inner peace.
Aware of the plight of both the bird and the butterfly as told in the beginning of this article, I encourage all of us not to continually bang our heads in frustration, but in freedom, to learn to live mindfully.
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