How often are we fully present with the world around us? Annie Dillard shares a reflection that is quite poignant in the opening paragraphs of the chapter “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She reflected upon how as a child she would leave pennies on the sidewalk for strangers to pick up. She noticed that people may not recognize or appreciate something as supposedly tiny as a penny. To her, this may represent a phenomena in which people fail to recognize the little gifts that are left along the way. She states at some can become so impoverished that “he won’t stoop to pick up a penny.” In this case, the poverty Annie speaks about is not necessarily physical, but could be referring to a lack of spiritual nourishment–a lack of connection to the spirit in those things both inner and outward in this existence. I must admit, Annie’s magnificent insight struck a cord in me, and one that played the tune of regret. It made me think of the many moments when I have witnessed something glorious happening in nature: a blue heron gliding across a small pond, or a crow singing in the trees, and have pulled myself away from the beauty of that moment to, instead, attend to the buzzing voice inside of my mind. Mary Oliver, in her poem “Summer Day” explores the beauty that can come of these moments when we do actually pay attention:
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day. (A Few Poems)
In too many of these moments in my own life, I have flown away, cradling myself in the soft, safe corners of my own hidden mind, because it has felt more familiar to me. Instead of allowing myself to experience the present moment, I have abstracted myself as an object, separate from my material reality. This is the worldview that Abram presents has been prominent in Western societies since (at least) the seventeenth century: “According to the central current of the Western philosophical tradition, from its source in ancient Athens up until the present moment, human beings alone are possessed of an incorporeal intellect, a “rational soul” or mind which, by virtue of its affinity with an eternal or divine dimension outside the bodily world, sets us radically apart from, or above, all other forms of life” (Abram 48) I exhibited this sense of obnoxious belief that “I” in my “mind” was extracted from, or above, the bodily, incarnate world–the nature all around me.
I had an experience that taught me the value of the present moment in our class last week. Walking down the path in the woods, I decided to look up, and in a glance noticed a pretty pattern: the moon shining behind the covering of two layering trees. One was pine, the other deciduous, still hanging on to the last of its’ dried leaves. I wanted to capture it; the moon stuck out just barely in between where a few of the branches crossed, making a triangular shape where the moon sat. I reached for my phone to take a photo, only to find out that my camera memory was full.
How could I capture this moment if I could not catalogue it among the many photos already stored in the tiny box of metal and plastic which rests in my backpack?
So instead of capturing this moment some other way, or simply paying attention to it, I frantically searched through my phone to find photos that I could delete in order to make space for this new one. By the time the pop-up message on my phone disappeared when I tried to take a picture, I looked up to find the moon again, and it had gone on its way. It was no longer wedged in between those tree branches, but now stuck out in an awkward position, several inches away from where it had been when I previously noticed it.
This sudden realization that the moon had MOVED without my awareness of it stunned me, and quite honestly made me feel a little bit like an idiot. It hit me that this was what Annie Dillard had been hoping to convey in her opening paragraphs: that if we are not present, we miss the pennies along the sidewalk.
I missed the penny of this moment because I was not present to it; I was more worried about capturing it and having evidence of it than I was on experiencing the beauty itself. When I realized that that moment had passed, and the opportunity to enjoy it, I became angry. I saw how I pass up these little opportunities each day, carelessly.
Yet through reflection, I have learned that my relationship with the natural world has been formed by my environment–culturally and socially, in this case. The Western point of view which takes ourselves out of interdependent relationship with the natural world tells me that I needn’t be concerned about the natural, life-filled world unless I need something from it. All of our resources are now extracted and put into boxes and shelves that no longer resemble where they came from. I have forgotten my dependence on the various aspects of the natural world, and therefore I feel no need to listen to it.
David Abram presents an alternative perspective. He proposes that we are only present with our lived experience when we surrender ourselves to experiencing, and stop gripping with our minds to understand or make meaning of it. He states: “Yet whenever we attempt to explain this world conceptually, we seem to forget our active participation within it.” (Abram 40) When we are thinking about our world, we have trouble actually participating in it. Those fancy flights off into the corners of my comfy, cozy mind no longer look so satisfying.
Abram, David. The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-human World. New York: Pantheon, 1996. Print.
Dillard, Annie. “Seeing.” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. New York: Harper’s Magazine, 1974. N. pag. Print.
“A Few Poems.” A Few Poems. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2015.
“Sacred Fire Community.” Sacred Fire Community. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 Feb. 2015.