I started clearing away brush and piles of dead leaves so I could move our compost bins yesterday. That this is what concerns me now seems odd, or at least not the kind of activity I would have predicted for myself twenty years ago. I was not raised on a farm, or even in a family that kept a garden, and I’m not sure where I picked up the habit. I’m not an avid gardener, I’m pretty haphazard about the whole endeavor, but I like watching things grow, and I like the flowers and vegetables that result, and I have a little space to make it viable. In fact, I probably don’t need a compost bin, I could get by with a garbage can if I was just producing compost for the stuff I grow, but I also like the idea of not throwing things away if I can help it, so there I was, scraping a rough “E” shape in a microbial landscape so I could arrange bricks into bins.
Before I could get to the brush and leaf and loam, though, I had to pick up the pile of bricks stacked on the spot. We’d claimed them from a friend who had dismantled a walkway and didn’t need them anymore, and they’d been sitting in the back for 3 or 4 years now while we figured out what to do with them. I could fit about 20 or 30 in the wheelbarrow, which I then walked to another spot about 20 feet away to stack. The process of moving a pile of bricks 20 feet South, a few at a time, quickly made me very aware of everything I was doing, of the sweat on my neck, the leaf touching my ankle, the rough, but also smooth, surface of each brick, the angle of the sun, the bees clustered in the neighbor’s tree, even my breathing became something I was more present in, to use a cliched image. Cliched or not, it is a real sensation, when one’s awareness and presence suddenly grows sharper, and it happens because the self recedes, the ego is turned down, which might seem paradoxical, but it really isn’t: identity gets in the way of perception. Identity interprets what we perceive, self gives the world meaning, but perception always comes first, and we can nurture the ability to reign in the self and hesitate before leaping to interpretation, as so many hermetic and meditative traditions exemplify.
So, there’s nothing new in this observation, in fact it would seem trite if it didn’t seem like our world could use a lot more contemplation and a lot less ego just now. Maybe such was always the case, hence the staleness of the language of awareness and being present in the moment, and the relative immediacy of our media environment has simply made it more evident: most of us could do with taking a deep breath and backing away from who we are from time to time, in order to make our selves better when we return, just as travel provides us with new eyes, to paraphrase Proust. Traveling to a new place necessitates the sublimation of ego because the traveler needs to be more present, more aware, cannot help be so because everything is different. My backyard is not an unfamiliar place, but my sudden, keen awareness of what was happening there heightened the experience just as surely as stepping off a train to see strange architecture and street signs that require translation. I don’t know if the act of moving bricks is what brought things into focus, what matrix of sensations made the voice in my head hush. I do know that we can create the conditions for this kind of awareness to happen more readily, even if we can’t predict exactly when. And it need not be through manual labor, the same traditions that champion the sublimation of ego provide us with plenty of tools to create these conditions (including manual labor). They are available, and they are free, and they lead to greater empathy for our fellow humans and for the world. Anyone trying to sell wellness or mindfulness, to profit off it, is clearly missing the point.