Accidental meditation: Finding my peace in the moment

Denis Balibouse/Reuters/File
Cows return from mountain pastures in Gruyères, in western Switzerland, for which Gruyère cheese is named.

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I have never meditated by conscious choice; it just happens sometimes. My mind goes utterly quiet, inviting new fill. In my days as a dairy farmer, it often happened as I milked the cows or sat on my tractor. I would lose any semblance of thinking beyond the contours of the animals, the undulating fields. When the milk tank filled, or that final middle row of fragrant, dried meadow grass curled into form behind me, I’d wake as if from a curative sleep, ready for the world of ideas, anxieties, anticipations, and plans.

Today, I’m half a world away in Switzerland. Recently I went on a three-hour hike, along a karst valley replete with waterfalls, caves, and archaeological sites. I simply put one foot in front of the other, listened to the rippling and cascading water, and peered into the dark, blank mouths of trailside caves.

There’s a lot to be said for not tuning in to the past or future for stretches of time, for dwelling only in the flank, the windrow, or the footfall – whatever the moment presents. I cannot turn off my mind. But sometimes it so fills with the here and now there’s no room for more.

Why We Wrote This

Many have discovered the restorative properties of outdoor recreation. This essayist tells of how working with nature has often refreshed her as well.

I have never meditated by conscious choice; by invoking mantras, sitting quietly, avoiding noise, and pushing away the thoughts abuzz in my head. It just happens sometimes. My mind goes utterly quiet, inviting new fill.

In my days as a dairy farmer, it often happened as I milked the cows or sat on my Farmall-H tractor, a vintage machine that was anything but quiet. As I leaned my head against warm bovine flanks or circled the fields raking hay into long, curving windrows, I would lose track of time, place, and any semblance of thinking beyond the contours of the animals munching grain, the undulating fields. When the milk tank filled, or that final middle row of fragrant, dried meadow grass curled into form behind me, I’d wake as if from a curative sleep, deeply relaxed, ready for the world of ideas, anxieties, anticipations, and plans to crowd in again. It is restoration at a bargain price, simply time spent at ordinary work, a tank of gas for the tractor.

It happens when I hike, concentrating not on the future, but on each present footfall and my natural surroundings. My home on an 80-acre farm in Indiana was the ideal setting for walkabouts for 25 years before it changed hands. Even so, I have permission to avail myself of its pastures, woodlands, and stream valleys – its grazing animals, whose own minds seem similarly quiet and untroubled. 

Why We Wrote This

Many have discovered the restorative properties of outdoor recreation. This essayist tells of how working with nature has often refreshed her as well.

Today, I’m half a world away in Switzerland. As a dual citizen, I gained entry in the midst of the pandemic and spent 10 days in quarantine on the edge of an encircling suite of rising pastureland just south of Basel. I was not allowed to leave the premises, not even for a stroll along the wide-open footpaths twisting up and around the pastures, much as I longed to. Instead, I weeded my host’s yard above a small orchard, something I offered to do, somewhat to her surprise.

“But I’d really like to,” I said, when she protested my offer to work. Day after day, I pulled at the wild tangles, filling two large yard bags and quieting my thoughts while I did so. 

My room in the house is small, but up on the second story, with a balcony overlooking the neighborhood and the open country surrounding it. From there, I can watch the nearby farmers plow and disc their fields. It leads me to wonder what, if anything, they are thinking as they work – but, for the most part, my mind is on slow time as I sit out on the balcony. The nearby church bells coordinate with my heartbeat. The cowbells clang with a different rhythm, but they resonate too.

Now, with my quarantine ended, I consulted a map and became intrigued with a three-hour hike, two train stops north, along a karst valley replete with waterfalls, caves, and archaeological sites. Shame on me for not diligently consulting the educational postings about various features. Instead, I simply put one foot in front of the other, listened to the rippling and cascading water, and peered into the dark, blank mouths of trailside caves from the sunlit path.

There’s a lot to be said for not tuning in to the past or future for stretches of time, for dwelling only in the flank, the windrow, or the footfall – whatever the moment presents. I have a wildly gifted and keenly intelligent friend who once confessed to me, “I can’t turn my brain off.”

I can’t, either. But sometimes it so fills with the here and now there’s no room for more.

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