Red Lights, Screens, and the Value of Waiting

As I mentioned in my last post, I upgraded to a smartphone this week. I’d considered doing this for quite some time but finally went ahead with it because I felt it would improve my communication with my busy teenagers considerably if I had better texting capabilities and could interact with greater mobility and ease. And this definitely is proving to be true. However, one thing I’ve really noticed during the past few days is that having a smartphone with me throughout the day kind of pulls my attention in that direction. The phone is a trap door into a world of possibilities – excessive possibilities – much as the painting, Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in His Picture Gallery in Brussels by David Teniers the Younger depicts. (You can click on the name of the painting to view it.) I noticed that little tug while waiting at a lengthy red light in town. And that little tug made me aware of the values and virtues of knowing how to wait.

Waiting – in line at a grocery store or at a traffic light or doctor’s office or any number of other places – is a wonderful opportunity to awaken from the trance of activity, to still the mind and tune in to our body, the rhythm of the breath, the environment. In his book, Peace is Every Step, Vietnamese Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh suggests reframing the red traffic light “as a bell of mindfulness, reminding us to return to the present moment.” He continues: “The next time you see a red light, please smile at it and go back to your breathing. ‘Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile'” (p. 33).

When I was growing up, we didn’t have devices to occupy us during long car trips until Walkmans eventually came along. But even then, it was only audio and not the full audiovisual experience. We looked out the window at the scenery. We thought and imagined. We squabbled. We got bored. And I think boredom that comes from uncluttered moments and an uncluttered mind is a gift that our youngest generation is deprived of to some degree. I do hope that today’s children and teenagers will come to know the joy and freedom of unplugging and being present to the world around them, and to their own selves. Growing up in a world of screens – both stationary and handheld – I hope they will achieve a healthy balance between the virtual universe and the living, breathing universe. Connecting children with the wonder and mystery of the latter is important work. We need to help them find that balance.

With camera in hand, I find myself doing a great deal of waiting. I wait for clouds to cover the sun and provide better, more diffused lighting. I wait for people to move out of my viewfinder. I wait for a rainbow to appear when the sun bursts through rainclouds.

I wait for bright yellow goldfinches to return to wilted sunflowers so I can photograph one resting on the backside of a drooped seed head and eating the seeds.

The goldfinches are the same colors as the sunflowers that have popped up in abundance all over our yard this year. We didn’t plant a single sunflower; the birds did it for us. And now we have hundreds of sunflower bird feeders as a result. I have been wanting to get this particular shot for weeks but have yet to accomplish it. The trick is to wait quietly for quite some time so the skittish goldfinches don’t notice my presence and feel it’s safe to return to the sunflowers. And in the meantime as I sit, I listen to the crickets and grasshoppers, the grand symphony of late summer, the breeze rustling the leaves of the towering black locust trees lining our yard. When I tap into the environment like that, I feel connected with all the life around me and feel the life energy moving through me. I feel more fully alive.

I don’t want to fill up all the spaces by disappearing into a tunnel of information and chatter. Each moment offers a choice between authenticity and habit, presence and ego, expanding and contracting.

I will return to work in 16 days, and life will become much busier. There will be many professional responsibilities demanding my time and attention both within and outside of my contracted work day that go far beyond actual classroom instruction. But one thing I have really practiced this summer is being more fully present in the present moment. When you’re truly inhabiting the present moment, you realize that there is so much more than this little problem or situation demanding attention; you can access a spaciousness that channels fuller consciousness and wisdom. And that is why I am here now and not burdened by all the things I need to do at the beginning of the school year. I write in my planner when I want to set up my classroom, for instance, and then forget about it. It’ll get done. Put it on a list, and assign it to a certain day or week. No sense bringing anxiety related to what I need to do in the future into this moment. Because this moment is perfect as it is, if I am tuned to the right channel.

And even if I don’t end up getting a picture of a goldfinch on a sunflower, the time spent waiting was not wasted because it was a portal into All This.

And chances are that when the image I’m fixated on doesn’t manifest, I’ll find something else that I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t stopped and paused – something that seems to appear out of nowhere and simply fascinates me.

It’s truly wonderful when waiting facilitates awareness and being rather than habitual doing. Actually, it makes all the difference in the world!

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