Journey of Mindfulness
“Everything old is new again”. Evolution is the act of growing. That is my own definition. Short and sweet, I am certain most experts would claim it is incomplete and I understand that viewpoint. Nonetheless, I still defend my definition of evolution; it is the act of growing.
Hopefully, as we age, we grow up, maturing into that which we hope to represent – our beliefs, a good version of our heritage, a promise for the future. Recently, a great deal of discussion has ensured in the USA regarding the continued use of a battle flag from a dark period in the country’s history. Many have claimed it is their “heritage”.
I realize the importance of heritage. Growing up in the same part of the country from which this heated debate has ensued for over sixty years and having heard these arguments before, I was raised on the importance of remembering one’s heritage, honoring one’s ancestors.
The thing is, though, if all I thought generations of my ancestors had accomplished was one single piece of cloth…well, I’d be put in a chair and instructed for hours, days, even weeks. I would be told that my family was far more than any one year or four. I would be reminded of all that had been accomplished, challenges, met, struggles overcome, faith continued. I would also be admonished for living in the past. I would be told to remember the past but live in the present and prepare for the future.
The greatest gift any parent has is the hope for a future for their children. Sometimes those children grow up to be fine, upstand citizens. Sometimes they become the plague of society and sometimes they simply forget they ever needed parents at all.
It is a common buzz word today and the source of many internet businesses – mindfulness. Few realize its heritage is in the Greek mythologies of antiquity and illustrated in both the epic poems attributed to Homer and the two novels, one being released at midnight last night, of Harper Lee.
Experts disagree on whether Homer actually wrote both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”. One argument for multiple writers uses both central characters: Achilles from the “Iliad” and Odysseus from the “Odyssey”. Achilles’ story is the story of a young man growing up while Odysseus is a man grown up living his life. Richard Martin describes the two as Achilles being “an initiatory hero” with Odysseus as a “trickster”.
Robert Fagles translated the opening of the “Iliad” thus: “Rage — Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses…”. Achilles goes through a series of battles that move him forward in his process of maturing. His eventual death at an age younger than desired is indicative of many warriors. Symbolic of a young man’s journey in becoming an adult, Achilles leaves his home and makes decisions that ultimately orchestrate his demise.
Odysseus lives in the everyday present of his life. His takes each day as it comes, handles each challenge with a mindset of winning for today. Greek mythology also followed an evolution of sorts. It was not simply content to have superhuman immortals that sat on high and pulled the strings of life. Their deities evolved into interacting with mortals, in losing and winning and sometimes losing again. Their deities were decorated not only with great beauty but also great emotions – good and bad.
In living in the present, Odysseus is seen as a trickster. He does whatever it takes to win the hour and take home the prize, whether he really needs or wants the prize doesn’t matter. Life is a competition to him and he wants to win.
Mindfulness today is about being present in the moment but realizing that life is not just a race, it is a pace. Any marathon runner will tell you that there are periods of fast running and periods of slower running. Life goes uphill and downhill and the successful person is one who stays focused on the steps before him so that he/she is ready for those ahead.
The two novels by Harper Lee speak of a period in American history where one man ran a different course and stood up for a disenfranchised accused man. The character of Atticus Finch is neither godly nor superhuman. He is a mere mortal but one who is neither foolish nor a trickster. Finch is a mature lawyer who decides to go against his community in upholding his purpose to uphold the law. He sacrifices his popularity in order to “do the right thing”.
In the mythology of our life that we all write in our minds, we have the courage and fortitude of Atticus Finch, the mature man, the leading character and hero of “To Kill a Mockingbird”. He is a man who realizes his heritage is much more than his color or a piece of fabric representing a century old battle, in part a battle brought about by hatred. In the recently released novel, Harper Lee describes a younger Atticus Finch. Instead of her young man being the warrior Achilles, many have felt duped by Lee’s young Finch, the Odysseus trickster. Young Atticus Finch is trying to make his place in society and build a life. He lives very much in the moment, thinking his legacy should be one of status and wealth, not laying the foundation of a heritage of honor.
I believe many are rejecting this younger version of Atticus Finch because it speaks to our innermost nightmare and no longer represents the myth of who we are but the stark reality. I will leave it to the experts, those literary critics who feel compelled to write modern-day myths about great works, to determine if either is truly great or worthy of our time.
Evolution is not a done deal. Perhaps that is why it is never finished. Odysseus has an enduring character of mindfulness. He never loses sight of his prize. The telling of his history employs imagination, mythology, and the very core of humanity, that which is often not very humane. Fagles translation of the opening lines of the “Odyssey”: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered…”
Psychology Today has written much on the subject of mindfulness. “Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you’re mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.” It is a part of Buddhist meditation and seen as a tool to combat depression.
Mindfulness in the twenty-first century is about being alive – the most basic parts of life, the breathing, the silence, the feeling a part of all there is. It is not about combatting those forces but about simply being a part of them. Living in communion with ourselves is a very difficult thing to do. Living at peace with what we have made ourselves is even harder.
It is a journey, much like those of both Achilles and Odysseus. The myths of antiquity are also the myths of today. Atticus Finch made his journey, although many never knew how far he had to travel to become the beloved character in the second-written but first published novel. Perhaps the best thing about our journey is arriving at a destination of self. The journey is fraught with despair and challenges but it is a journey worth undertaking.