Turning Toward Midlife Mindfully
This self-regulation tool can help.
Posted Jun 29, 2019
Throughout literature, writers from a wide range of traditions have highlighted the incremental loss of self-awareness experienced by some individuals as we age and taken us across a wide spectrum of genres, settings, and lifestyles. As depicted in many pieces, such loss is not without consequences. Low self-esteem, lack of confidence, disillusioned behavior, general irritability, hollow relationships, unhappiness, and depression are just a few potential consequences. Yet it doesn't have to play out this way, as many of our literati and their works depict, as well as the individuals who have been inspired into a more satisfying mindset.
Someone I know—a neuroscientist—once said to me that most of us go through our day mindless—regardless of how intelligent we are—and emphasized he meant this in the Zen sense. I became humbled by his humility. Since then, I’ve tried to engender more of my own. I understood what he meant by just barreling through the day. Suffice to say, I’ve been there and done that.
Sometimes we are content with the way things are going. But if midlife is knocking at your door, demanding more inner authenticity and satisfaction, the following tool may be of interest to you.
So much of what we do day-in-and-day-out is on auto-pilot. This includes our actions, thoughts, and feelings. Some of these can contribute to our general irritation and also drive us away from what matters, goal-wise and self-wise. Some days you may wonder, “Where is the true me in this picture?” “What is intrinsically important of my behavior in this specific experience?” “How many of the important decisions in my life have been made automatically, without much awareness?”
Years ago I worked with several colleagues to bring a series of writers to our community. One of the writers who visited was the poet, Robert Bly. A perk of this involvement was that we were able to enjoy some downtime with our guests at lunch and dinner. We delighted in the opportunity to casually and comfortably ask a few questions that had been roaming our minds.
What I remember most is the mass and diversity of knowledge that informed most of these writers and their discussions—mainly their art and philosophy. Much of it revolved around awareness, and particularly self-awareness, and especially of details that can be easily overlooked. Ironically sometimes that is the very detail that may be required for us to “seal the deal,” so to speak, at a particular epoch or place. Often that sort of detail can provide insight that keeps one from barreling forth and shifts us on a course that may engender greater satisfaction and meaning from experiences. And fewer midlife blunders.
And so it was with Bly and his rhetoric for more awareness. He had a way of capturing in conversation, as well in a poem, a snapshot of the world—the understanding that it is in mindful-quietude that random, perhaps insightful, detail can be revealed. The message is that what so often is easily missed or ignored in the loudness of daily busyness can potentially be captured.
Getting yourself into a private space was important to Bly and much of his work. I remember him saying something at lunch that day, quite off-the-cuff. It was about over-busyness and over-ambition, the kind that hacks your mind off target. To his point, quiet moments, which he deemed necessary, can reveal authentic directions in living, perhaps spark intrinsic goals. This line of thinking posits some questions: Are such moments manifesting in my living? What is truly important as far as the person I am on the inside is concerned? It is this zone that Bly’s work encourages. At the core is developing more mindfulness and a deeper exploration of self in and through environments. This tool can be useful particularly as you turn the curve toward midlife.
In my previous post, Boosting Mindfulness, I referred to Buddhist monk and philosopher Thich Nhat Hanh’s definition of mindfulness as the energy of being aware and awake to the present moment. I want to continue that perspective here. You may, however, wish to check out some of the ideas in that post as they will enhance the self-regulatory aspects to this one. Mindfulness in Thich Nhat Hanh’s as well as Bly’s sense can work hand-in-hand with attending to details that could easily go unnoticed even as windows open to them daily. To be fair, though, no one can be “on” 24-7. Yet capturing them for the important moments can enrich your living.
Bly’s quiet moments as presented in his poetry often suggest a possibility of synergizing the energy of mindfulness. This occurs when we take a little time to make ourselves aware of natural environments that spark our personal psychic energy and whose lift we can ride into a flowing mindset. For some of us, this may be experienced as an exhilarating solitude, as in Bly’s poem, "Driving into Town to Mail a Letter," depicting a quiet, private drive on a snowy night. For others of us it may be "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver. In fact, as I write this I think of themes that touch on our connectivity with nature and self, such as those demonstrated in ecologist Dr. Anne LaBastille's groundbreaking memoir, Woodswoman.
Practicing mindful awareness helps engender higher-quality energy to brighten your attentional lamp and keep it there longer. Mindful awareness gives you access to sharper detail and your ability to probe it, creating an energy loop that enlivens rather than fatigues your mind and can better capture meaningful detail that speaks holistically to who you are. With practice, your mind can start initiating that loop on its own, deepening your experiences more effortlessly.
Bly’s work, as well as a plethora of other authors' works, shows the interplay of both one’s internal and external environments. It's easy to develop a list of your own favorites. What’s interesting is the synergy this practice is capable of generating. Sensitivity to what environments invigorate or calm you is the first step in your practice. One can start with environmental settings you already sense will have these effects on you. The next step is to start using them to get “out of your head” and increase your mindfulness within them.
By mindfully energizing your awareness, using it to restore and mindfully listen, you can become more self-aware. Solutions to some meaningful goals may be nearby. Discover healthy, peaceful spaces presented within the works of your favorite authors and artists. Look for similar spaces in the natural world around you. Visit your quiet spaces often. At times you can hear the deeper echoes of who you are and what you require at this specific juncture in life, bubbling up from catacombs in your mind.