I was telling a friend about our recent stay on a 40,000 acre sheep station in the South Australian Outback when she smiled at me.
“No offense, but what did you DO there?”
I had to think about it.
“Um, we hiked… we helped on the farm… played with the dogs… kids went for swim…”
I thought some more. “Really, I guess we just hung out.”
We did “hang out” quite a bit and looking back, I’m realizing how much I enjoyed that.
We are not a society that values time “hanging out”. Meet anyone on the street corner, at the café, the shop, in the schoolyard, and someone will say how “busy” they are.
What’s more, we say it with pride: How are you? Good! Busy! It’s a badge of honor. The more places you have to be, the more tasks you have to do, the fuller and more complete your life must be.
I’ve recently read some articles about the growth of “mindfulness”- the intentional focus of present-moment emotions, sensations and thoughts. It’s a movement that has shifted from meditation centers into the boardroom. Some of the world’s largest corporations, behemoths like Google, American Express and General Mills, have instituted mindfulness programs for its employees.
Irrespective of its value, it seems a bit trendy when mindfulness is instituted into the corporate world. It becomes a buzzword, a current phase that will be replaced next year by positive transference, global realization or whatever new movement is adopted by the enlightened masses. Imbedded in the workplace, it becomes measured, something on an agenda. How mindful are you? Have you done your daily twenty minutes of deep breathing? Have you centered yourself? Great- then get that report done before your next meeting.
This type of structured mindfulness isn’t the same as hanging out. I think what’s needed is an acceptance that it’s ok to take time out to do nothing. There doesn’t need to be a set schedule for it. Stare into space if you wish, for as long as you want. If you want to do something, go for a walk. Wander around in the dirt collecting rocks. Just be. Just breathe. Just hang out…
Why do we always feel like we have to be doing something? Why do we value organized activity so much that we feel we need to justify our free time?
Back at the station, I rose early one morning and hiked up a ridge to catch the sunrise, with just enough dawn to light my way. Armed with my good camera, I began taking photos of the early light blushing upon the far-off hills, colors changing from a pale pink to a soft rose before bursting forth in a brilliant orange. I took shot after shot of the distant hills as the sun rose higher in the sky.
As the light spread around me, my focus shifted. Where before I aimed my camera on the far-off distance, I began looking closer at the parade of gum trees bordering the station or the sheep grazing in a paddock below me.
Slowly, my view shrank even more. I looked down at the Shearer’s Quarters, where my family lay sleeping. I saw our dust-covered car parked near the eaves. I listened to the sounds of the farm waking above the wind that whistled around me. The alarm of a rooster crowing, an occasional turkey gobble, the cows lowing and the distant sound of sheep bleating. A lone bird squawking in the wind. The sounds of life waking to a new day.
Then I started to find the bushes, scraggly and twisted, some soft with pale green, spongy branches. And then flowers- so many flowers I hadn’t seen before. Flowers of light purple and tiny yellows, fighting to grow from a fissure in a rock, the tiny stems twisting frantically in the wind. I saw pieces of quartz at my feet, nestled in the ground as if an ice storm had just passed through.
Eventually I stopped taking photos and just sat on top of that ridge. I was grateful to be alone; no one would have had the patience to stay with me. My eyes grew keener and my vision narrowed to what was directly in front of me, but it took 1 ½ hours up on that ridge to find that focus.
What did I do during those 90 minutes? I had no agenda, no time frame. … I took some photos… I listened… I looked… I breathed… I hung out. Really, I did whatever moved me at the time. And I hiked back down from the ridge feeling calmer and more alive than any forced exercise of mindfulness could have done.