“Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness”
This fall I began a program in contemplative caregiving taught by two Zen monks in New York City. The idea behind the program is that by cultivating mindful awareness within ourselves, we can better serve those around us. I will be using this training as a volunteer in a local nursing home this winter. I had my first visit with a woman last week to provide a respite for her daughter who is caring for her full time. Those two hours with her could not have been more unlike an afternoon on the farm: I sat at the foot of her bed and didn’t do anything. I asked about her family down in Florida, we talked about her favorite foods, and she lamented the changes that have taken place in her life as a result of her illness. I itched for an activity–if only there was some laundry to do or some dusting. She didn’t even need a glass of water. Without a single project or list of chores, I had just one task: to pay attention.
I decided to become a volunteer and participant in this program precisely because it provides a contrast to the goal-oriented fast pace of farm life. But yesterday, as I was picking the last of the rainbow chard, it occurred to me that good farming is actually a lot like good caregiving. If I’m not totally focused as I break off the leaves and bunch them, I might include old yellowing leaves or ones full of holes. If I’m not tuned in to my surroundings, I might miss the signs of a new pest infestation or nutritional deficiency. When growing organically with a limited range of chemical solutions, prevention is key. Essentially, an exceptional bunch of greens is the result of nothing more than careful attention.
As someone who has always taken seriously and felt overwhelmed by the demands of a productivity-obsessed culture, this simple realization is also incredibly profound: the quality of how I am matters as much as the quantity of what I accomplish. Its especially important to keep this in mind now, with the holiday season beginning next week. The holidays are often a time of exceptional stress: everybody wants something from us and everything needs to be just right. Stores now open Thursday night for Black Friday shopping so we can maximize the amount of stuff we buy. One holiday gathering is cut short to prepare for the next. We get lost in the shuffle. This Thanksgiving, I am committed to not only feel gratitude but to express it as best I can through my wholehearted undivided attention. I will try to do a little less and care a little more. As the zen teacher Thích Nhất Hạnh says,
“The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it”