The term ‘mindfulness’ had been invading everything I read like a persistent two-year-old tugging at my t-shirt. Eventually, I’d acquiesced and looked up the term on Google:
A family weekend at Waiheke is the perfect time and place to experiment. One: take a leisurely stroll up to the Artworks Community Theatre for author talk. Tick. Two: stay present. Tick. 4: don’t judge…(I wonder if Michael Corballis’ talk will be any good?). 5: notice the details…(I’d kill a coffee right now…oh, and did I pack my camera?) and 6: remember to look up. That I can do. Gosh. I wonder if any of you multi-tasking lovewordsmusic.commers find staying present difficult too? I nip into Delight Café and mindfully order a double shot.
I’ve caught the chef – or possibly owner – en route from behind swinging kitchen doors to front of house with a plateful of honey-oozing baklava. He holds up his index finger and nods, ‘one moment’. I hear the sound of a gentle kiss as the plate descends onto the stainless steel cabinet top. I’m a guilty voyeur watching a man’s culinary love affair unfold. At least we’re both drenched in mindfulness. Eyes narrowed, he turns the plate a few millimeters to the right so its edge is parallel to the cabinet top. Satisfied, he gestures with his right hand palm up as if to say: “voila. I release you into the world, my creation”. He steps back and smiles, his chin tilting upwards.
“The tiles. Yes, the tiles.” He turns his attention to me. His dark eyes glisten from within a swarthy Mediterranean face. “Where do you think they are from?”
“Spain? Maybe Catalonia?” I’d seen something similar in Girona.
“Close. Two hours flight from Spain.” He looks at me down his strong nose, willing me to know the answer.
“Oh so close! Just a short distance from there, very nearby.”
My god he’s persistent. My geography fails me embarrassingly and I shake my head.
“You’ll have to tell me.”
He lowers his voice and moves so close I’m a hummingbird smelling honey on his breath.
“Ees-tannn-bull,” he whispers as if it were a magic spell. “They are from Istanbul.”
I nod as if I understand.
“You see the two different flowers there on the tiles. They represent a big tension between two things. The tulips are the rise of the Ottoman empire, but the carnations,” he reaches out and traces one lightly with his finger, “the carnations symbolize the fall of that very same empire.”
I feel like I’ve stepped off the pavement and into some sort of wrinkle in time for a history lesson with a man who looks like a cross between a prophet and Al Capone.
“Double shot trim flat white to go!” The barista reaches over the counter with my coffee. “Have a truly wonderful day.” She really means it. And I think I already am.
“We all like to go on vacation,” says Professor Michael C. Corballis from his chair up on stage, “but we also like to come home. This,” he says, leaning in closer to his audience, “is like the tension between ‘mind wandering’ and ‘mindfulness’. Mind wandering is vacation, mindfulness is coming home.” What do you know; our two-year-old has resumed his shirt-tugging.
Corballis is professor emeritus at Auckland University and the author of a number of books on the human brain including his latest, The Wandering Mind: What the Brain Does When You’re Not Looking. Fifty years of teaching have honed him into an effortless performer, comfortable with his knowledge and in his own skin. His voice is captivating; smoky velvet on a clear day. I am transfixed. Here he is, giving our two-year-old a gentle smack on the hand and saying “let your mind just wander, it’s good for you.” Which is of course the opposite of what we are told as children – how many of you got growled at for daydreaming? I certainly did. Corballis says those who let their minds wander may be the most creative. More precisely, he says neither all mindfulness nor all mind wandering is a good thing. We’d do best to practice a bit of both.
What exactly does he mean by mind wandering? If mindfulness is focusing on the present, mind wandering is drifting away to what happened in the past or what may happen in the future; so it is linked with memory and imagination. I ask Corballis if there was a relation to either states of mind and happiness.
“Too much ice-cream isn’t a good thing for anyone. And neither is too much mindfulness or too much mind wandering. Mind wandering gets a bad rap because often your mind will drift back to mistakes you’ve made, social blunders, wrong decisions. This of course can cause unhappiness.”
So there are wrong and right types of mind wandering. The right kind helps me get to sleep at night. I lie in bed and let my mind walk through the rooms of my childhood home: I walk into Mum’s sewing room, open the white cupboard doors: there’s Muffin’s old slipper and flea-comb, the ironing board, the plastic washing hamper; I open the bottom draw underneath the Singer sewing machine and weigh the long red bag of knitting needles in my hands, and rub a tissue-thin knitting pattern between my fingers. It is as if by walking these hallways, into these rooms, I recapture the rhythm and simplicity of childhood and I drift to sleep, happy. Daydreaming about the future – the books I will write, the friends and family I will share meals with, seeing my children grow into happy young women – these too are the right kind of mind wandering – ‘my happy place’ as the Sky TV ad goes.
The day closes with a treasure hunt for the children and roast lamb rubbed with rosemary and garlic, slow cooked on the barbie and eaten around a table with dear friends. I’m mindful to savor the fall-apart, fragrant flesh and listen to Jo speak as she speaks passionately about her work.
After everyone has gone to bed, I open the front door and stand on the deck looking out over Oneroa Beach. The waves crash rhythmically onto the sand and with closed eyes, I let my mind flow with them. Gathered around me in the darkness are the memories we’ve made here over the years: Easter egg hunts and boogey board wipe-outs; fairies hiding in the Christmas tree, Lizzie and Peter proudly serving Te Makutu oysters on platters of ice, beach cricket and drowsy babies nestled in pale blue beanbags. I feel like I’m everywhere and nowhere all at once. The past, present and future jostle for their place, settling – satisfied – into horizontal layers of memory and imagination.
I turn away and walk inside, shutting the night and everything else out behind me. Tonight I need not walk hallowed halls or familiar carpeted stairways to get to sleep. I smile a kiss into the darkness at that persistent two-year-old and turn out the light.