Joy in Daily Life

Finding wonder in unexpected places

Posted Aug 07, 2015

“To see the world in a grain of sand, heaven in a wildflower,” wrote the poet and painter William Blake. A lovely and romantic sentiment, possible for Blake in rural England in the 1800s, but not relevant for our stressed-out, urban life in 2015, I thought.

            But a daylong MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) retreat I recently taught with the delightful and inspiring Sasha Oxnard, M.D., a family physician and yoga teacher at Cambridge Health Alliance, has helped me see the possibility for more joy and wonder in daily life. The retreat was part of an eight-week course sponsored by our Center for Mindfulness and Compassion. Toward the end of the silent, seven-hour class, which included sitting meditation, body scan, walking meditation, some movement, and a quiet lunch of eating mindfully, we tried a practice that was new to me. In this simple yet profound exercise, our group moved outside of our contained, indoor space into the activity of the outside world, where everyone chose one thing to look at for 15 minutes. Please keep in mind that there’s nothing poetic about urban Somerville, MA. Our utilitarian clinic is on a busy street filled with parking lots, a church, a few residential houses, with a Dunkin’ Donuts and a take-out chicken wings restaurant at the bottom of the street. It’s on a major cross street, so there’s a steady flow of traffic. It could be any street in urban America.

I’m sure it looked rather strange, a class of people standing around on the street and staring at things. A delivery man, a few young couples, and a young child looked at us quizzically. What were we doing? Knowing that part of the psychiatry department is housed in our clinic, I wondered: Did our behavior concern them?

            We all chose different things to contemplate. Someone studied a bicycle, someone else looked at a discarded coffee cup with a lipstick stain, another at a fire hydrant. I chose a purple petunia. Not only was this an exercise in seeing an external object, but also a chance to watch our minds. Even after six hours of concentrated practice, mine was still critical and unruly. Hmmm, should I have chosen the hibiscus? Its colors are more vibrant. Why didn’t I find something I could smell? A stone wall is preventing me from touching the flower—what an annoyance! What if the person who lives in the house comes out and confronts me? What do I say? I’m supposed to be silent. It is too late to change?

After a few minutes of questioning my choice, I settled into just looking at the petunia. Although I grow them in my garden at home, I never really noticed the veins at the center of the flower. They were so complex, so intricate, and as detailed as the wings of a butterfly. The sun shining on the flower gave it a translucent glow. And it rippled when the wind blew. I realized there was so much more to a petunia than I ever thought. It’s such an ordinary flower, so easy to pass by.

As we broke silence and talked for the last hour about the class, others seemed moved by this exercise as well. Discussing it with the wise and wonderful Zayda Vallejo, our MBSR teacher and supervisor, she commented that for many it takes us back to the wonder of childhood. For me, that’s exactly what happened. I remembered being six, lying on my belly on a lazy summer day, enchanted by a pile of pebbles in the woods near our house (woods that are no longer there, having been razed for a strip mall decades ago). Who has the time for such “useless” activity as an adult? However, simply looking can bring us back to a sense of wonder. Here’s the practice. Try it with friends or family if you like.

  • Get outside, turn off all devices or leave them at home.
  • Choose one thing to look at—it doesn’t have to be beautiful, you don’t have to like it, just find one thing that you are curious about and can look at for 15 minutes.
  • Carefully observe the object, bringing attention to the light, the color, how the object moves with the wind. Look at it from many angles. It’s easiest to choose something that stays still and allows you to watch it.
  • If 15 minutes seems too long, try 10. If your mind starts wondering, or you question your choice, don’t worry. See what you can learn about the patterns of your mind. Allow yourself to be receptive to the one thing you are studying.
  • When you’re done, feel free to show others what you noticed. What do they see?

When I returned to the clinic to teach the following week, my petunia was gone; it had shriveled in the heat. They don’t last that long. But after class, one of the participants enthusiastically showed me her fire hydrant. She pointed out spider webs, the colors of chipped paint, the stamps that showed where and when it was made, even dried cat poop at the base. There was so much to notice in this simple object. It was so rich. I realized I had never really seen a fire hydrant. We were having a great time just looking and talking about this hydrant. What joy there was in simply being present.

Driving out of the parking lot into the traffic, past the laundromat, the liquor store, the gas station, and the auto-body shop, a fragment of a poem from W.B. Yeats popped into my mind:

            We must laugh and we must sing,

            We are blessed by everything,

            Everything we look upon is blessed.

Susan M. Pollak
Source: Susan M. Pollak

Psychologist Susan Pollak, MTS, Ed.D., co-author of the book Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy, (Guilford Press) has been teaching and supervising at Harvard Medical School for over twenty years.