“If we could see the miracle of a single flower clearly, our whole life would change,” the Buddha said. I copied that quote in my commonplace book awhile back and read it often hoping that someday I’ll understand it.
I’ve come a little closer to comprehending its meaning thanks to a book I’m reading, Looking at Mindfulness: 25 Painting to Change the Way You Live by Christophe Andre. Earlier this year, I read and really liked Andre’s book, Happiness: 25 Ways to Live Joyfully through Art and followed that reading with his exploration of mindfulness. In both books, Andre presents 25 great works of art and reflects on how these paintings capture the many aspects of the topic he is reflecting on—happiness and mindfulness. This is good solid stuff because Andre is a French psychiatrist who understands the human soul.
In one chapter he uses the classic Edward Hopper painting, Gas, to explore why we should be mindful of ordinary things. https://www.moma.org/collection/works/80000
In examining the painting, he asks us to think about how many times we’ve stopped at a gas station but have never really been there. Oh, we pump the gas and pay the bill but are we really present? Do we notice the logos on the signs, the light on the gas pump, the smell of the vapor, the tune on the car radio? Are we there or are we thinking about a conversation we had earlier, what kind of pizza to order for dinner, what’s on TV tonight? How aware are we that this is a unique moment, one that we will never experience in the same way again. “Making ourselves present,” Andre writes, “means making ourselves alive. For real.”
I decided to test this claim for “aliveness” by trying it consciously once a day for a week. The other day I was sitting in my easy chair looking out the window at my friend Mary who was outside reveling in the last hurrahs of her beloved flower gardens. Mary, who has directed our soup kitchen for 40 years, always tells me, “When I die, put in my obit: in lieu of donations to the soup kitchen, send flowers”—that’s the depth of her love affair with these frail blossoms. “I’m going to be mindful right now,” I said to myself.
So, I looked, I really looked at the scene in front of me. There was Mary in the midst of a riot of cosmos, fading, yes, in late September, but still colorful. I looked at all the purples and pinks and whites, at the tall, slender green stems, at Mary surrounded by the flowers, some even towering over her, at the low white clouds in the blue sky …and I stayed there for maybe a minute before the mind went somewhere else. “I will never see this exact scene ever again,” I said to myself. “This is it. I am alive. Now. Here.”
The Buddha and Andre are right. For that brief time, I was alive in a different way. A kind of fall on your knees and sing praise way. I suppose the idea is that if we all got good at this, at this humbling awareness of being alive, life would be so precious and awe full and tender that we could do no harm—to each other, to the streams, to the trees, to the deer, to the children….
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A blog by Mary Lou Kownacki
A personal journal captures what’s in the heart. Most of my adult life I’ve recorded my notes, brief reflections, poems, reactions to daily events in a journal. It is an ongoing source of monastic formation; the rich and raw material of life that helps shape my Monastery of the Heart. About a year ago, Old Monk began to appear on my journal’s pages. Mary Lou Kownacki, OSB, is the Monasteries of the Heart coordinator.
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