Monday, May 30, 2016

Awesomeness, Inc.

I'm a cowboy - on a steel horse I ride...
How’ve you been, NIP?

            I hope that you’ve been awesome. Whenever someone asks my brother-in-law some derivation of the same question (how are you?, etc.), he always replies with “awesome.” I love that answer, even if he only means it in the more colloquial sense that the term has taken on in the last 30 years or so. But when I say that I hope you’ve been—and continue to be—awesome, I mean it in the literal, original sense of the word. I’ve been thinking about how awesome my life is as of late, especially this past Memorial Day weekend. Plus, reflecting on the previous letter about L.U.G., I don’t think I talked about the aspect of awesomeness that imbues much (if not all) of what makes L.U.G., L.U.G. So I wanted to rectify that by writing this short letter to you today after thinking about it yesterday while I was mowing my father-in-law’s lawn.

            I’m not going to lie, I love to mow lawns. Always have. Can’t quite put my finger on it, but the most prominent feature that I keep coming back to when I explain to others is the solitude. When you’re mowing the lawn, no one is going to disturb you for virtually any reason. Much like when I run, I can use that time to think or to just be, and usually it ends up being a combination of both—times when I slip into thinking and reflection, and then out of it into simply being and focusing on the various sensations within my field of consciousness. While I’m mowing the lawn, though, it tends to be more of the latter rather than the former, and I think it has a lot to do with the connection to nature (or L.U.G. more broadly). Whatever the reason is, it hit me big time when I was mowing yesterday.

It might not be Montana, but Plant City is definitely "Big Sky Country"
            When I first crossed the fence-line yesterday to the back parcel, I stopped to just take in the sky. The clouds were billowing outward yet pockets of sunshine spotted the ground from the light streaming through, and in the distance you could feel rain coming from the north behind me as the breeze blew to the southeast. I sat there on the mower for a long moment, taking it in, and I really didn’t have words. When these moments hit me when I am truly awestruck, I can feel them rising. It’s as if I become one with the very thrumming heartbeat of L.U.G. It left me after a moment once I began mowing in earnest, but after about three loops around the fencing and a solid border had been established, about a dozen cattle egret joined me in the grass. They took turns flying down from the fence posts and into the freshly mown grass to scarf up the insects whose habitats had been briefly disturbed by the grass being cut. I watched them for several moments as they ran about, swooping up and out of the way as the mower passed, until finally I just stopped altogether and sat there taking in this amazing sight. After a few moments they had made their way through the property and had moved on to the adjacent one, but the feeling of awe stayed with me for the rest of the time I mowed.

Cattle Egret. In case you've never seen one and were dying to know.
I felt so privileged and blessed to be alive in that moment. I still do right now.

            I think there is a direct connection between the capacity to cultivate awe in our daily lives and our overall life satisfaction. I hesitate to use the word happiness here because that might be too glib. There is something about awe when you are feeling it in the moment that doesn’t quite connote happiness, but the feeling itself is pleasurable. It’s definitely a reverential feeling, something that makes you feel truly grateful to be alive and bask in the “is-ness” of that specific moment. That’s not to say that awe can’t make you also feel something akin to fear and a certain recognition of smallness in terms of scale when contemplating one’s place in the cosmos, but most of the time when it does arise for me it tends to be of the more pleasurable variety. But this connection then begs the question: how do we cultivate our capacity for awe?

            For me, it has been mostly my mindfulness meditation practice. For nearly seven years now I have meditated every day, constantly calling myself back away from my auto-pilot brain mode to paying attention to what is happening to me in the present moment. That, coupled with a true recognition of my ignorance about the world and how it works, has instilled in me this capacity for recognizing awe when it arises. While I wish I could turn it on and off like a switch, I can’t. What I do know, though, is that these moments rise up to greet me in the present much more often than they did before, almost as if L.U.G. knows exactly when to blossom its petals outward and let me take a peek into its esoteric nature. We all can learn how to do this—or perhaps re-learn—because each and every one of us did it when we were young. The reason why we stop has a lot to do with our nature, and we have to learn to override this impulse by constantly being on the lookout for the awesomeness that is right in front of us in most moments.

            Do you remember what it was like to be young, NIP? I don’t mean in your teens or even twenties, I mean younger than ten years old. I’m sure you do, and I am sure you have fond memories from that phase of your life. Or, even better, if you have children of your own, you’ve seen their natural capacity for awe in them when they interact with just about everything in life. I used to call it “innocence” when I was younger, always lamenting the loss of it because for the first ten years or so of our lives nearly everything is wonderful. Do you remember that? That constant need to explore? To try out new and different things? Everything was so novel, so new. We lived in a state of amazement precisely because we hadn’t experienced it, or at least not in that particular way in that moment we remember so much. Now that I’m 40 and have learned a lot more about life—especially the human brain—I realize that it is not innocence that we lose as we grow older, it’s that we become habituated.

            Habituation is good insofar as it keeps our species (and perhaps all animals) safe. But there is a real sense in which becoming habituated to life within a certain context can deaden our spirits and strip away what makes us truly feel alive. After all, the way the field of psychology defines habituation is the lessening of a physiological or emotional response to repeated stimuli. We come to accept a certain routine to our daily lives, a familiar pattern. But in so doing we also start to take it all for granted. Ultimately, what these last few years have taught me is that by fighting to see the newness and uniqueness in those moments when I am willing to actively search for them in a given moment, we not only become more grateful as we take less for granted, but we also build up a reservoir of awe that we can tap into more frequently, reinvigorating the childhood exuberance we once felt for living life to the fullest and being a part of something much bigger than ourselves.

Though it's difficult to tell, this Tree frog looked like a small Bull frog.

            I spent the better part of the afternoon thinking about these things as I took in the view from the back porch of my father-in-law’s house. I watched two baby doves land on the lip of the birdbath to clean themselves before flying away. I watched a long black snake wind through the grass out into the shade of the Plumbago bush before finally being chased out of there by a protective mockingbird. A bright red cardinal next landed on the birdfeeder and ate his fill, dropping small bits of seed in the process. In between these sights I shared stories and smiles with family…and I felt awesome. I felt great to be alive, to enjoy these simple moments and to recognize them for the gifts that they are. On the drive home, a quote that I stumbled upon while re-reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations came to me, and I will leave it here for you to further contemplate as you try to incorporate more awesomeness into your own daily life, NIP.

When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—
to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.

Stay awesome,

- Ryan

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