Last summer I began dreaming of sunflowers. I think my fascination began when a friend took a cross-country road trip and posted pictures of fields of sunflowers in South Dakota. I could not get enough of his images of veritable seas of happy, cheerful flowers.
Then, walking home after breakfast in a little local haunt in Narragansett, RI last August, I turned a corner and came face to face with a wall of sunflowers. Someone had planted these cheerful giants in barely six inches of sheltered earth between the wall of their house and the sidewalk. I thought, “If these beauties can grow here in this tiny, sunny space, maybe I can grow them, too!”
After two of the coldest May days on record last weekend, I decided to make my sunny dream reality by planting twelve tiny sunflower seedlings in a bright spot nestled against my garden shed next to my beloved Yellow Rose of Texas.
As I dug the little holes, sprinkled in a pinch of fertilizer, and gently opened up the roots, I felt a shiver of hope. I am excited to watch them grow into plants. I am eager to see if they settle in and decide to bloom.
These little plants have me looking forward for the first time in months.
Staying focused on this moment is a way to stay centered and peaceful
You see, during the past eight weeks, I’ve learned that the best way for me to stay centered and peaceful is to stay focused on this moment, right now. Each time I allow myself to get drawn into questioning the future – “How long will this go on?” “Will we be OK?” “What will “after” look like?” – I feel unsettled as my old “friend,” anxiety, flares up.
Yoga is a chance to practice staying focused on this moment
Staying in the moment is something I’ve had a lot of chances to practice. When I’m on my yoga mat, moving and breathing through a series of postures I know inside and out, it takes effort (a.k.a. mindfulness) to keep my awareness on each and every breath.
There are a million opportunities for my mind to wander off. I catch myself thinking about what I’m going to do after I practice. I replay conversations I had in class. I make lists of people I need to call or text. I often have ideas that feel so profoundly urgent that it requires real willpower to stay and finish my practice.
Each of these moments of inattention, I’ve been taught, is an opportunity to return. To draw my awareness, my focus, myself back to this moment, right here and right now. The fact that I’m in a yoga posture gives me plenty to absorb my attention – “Is my alignment correct?” “Am I overworking?” “Am I breathing?”
Staying in the moment is harder in the real world
But being on a yoga mat is more like a laboratory setting than real life. This pandemic has been a rich, fertile time for me to practice staying firmly and mindfully present to each moment in the real world.
I’ve found that staying present is both easy and profoundly difficult to do. It’s easy when I’m home, doing my job or reading a book or happily engaged in a game of Scrabble or working on our puzzle after dinner.
It’s harder to stay in the moment when I’ve just watched the news, or talked with a worried friend or flipped ahead in my calendar to realize that the yoga workshop I’m excited about is only three weeks away. The future – with all its unknowns and uncertainties – has been an uncomfortable place for me to spend time lately.
With the right mindset, it’s possible to stay in the moment while looking hopefully ahead
My little sunflowers, however, have given me access to a future that feels OK. In fact, it feels hopeful and a little exciting. It’s the same gentle anticipation I feel each time I walk the dogs. “What will be blooming today?” “Will we see the fox again?” “I wonder how the reconstruction of that old house has progressed.”
This is looking ahead that I think even our yoga teachers would sanction. It is a forward glance with an open heart and mind. It is looking to the future with curiosity rather than with a desire for a particular outcome. It is anticipation that doesn’t pull us out of the moment, but rather inspires us to savor each moment along the way.
It turns out that I’m just as excited to go out and check on my little sunflower seedlings each morning as I am to (maybe … hopefully) have their bright, happy faces smiling at me as I walk to my yoga studio late this summer.
If you’ve noticed your mind skittering around in the future more than usual, you’re not alone. Join our community to practice mindfulness on and off a yoga mat.