Focus on the art of breathing. Use the breath to draw every corner of the drowsy, wandering, or agitated mind back into a current moment of presence. Feel nothing but the rising and falling of the chest. Take notice of the sinuous roots weaving in and out of the ground. Glance upwards as the the rays of sun and wind dance to illuminate the flurry of leaves above. Through an inextricable entanglement of all of the senses, the mind and body absorb every ounce of information that each moment offers. As mechanization becomes a manner of living, fast-paced the norm and overdrive expected, drawing attention to the present is often a respite needed.
As an undergraduate senior eager to capitalize on my last few classes, I was drawn into this concept of meditation. Mindfulness took front and center, but it was not in my efforts to tame my wandering mind that I became so cognizant of the present. Rather, it was in my effort to become a “skilled” environmental major that an awareness of the present took hold. Hopping from course to course on environmental policy to conservation biology to restoration ecology, my undergraduate career has often been one focused on the theoretical. So in an effort to gain a practical skill to someday reach the status of employable, or perhaps out of sheer curiosity, I enrolled in a dendrology course to delve into the identification of the tree species that surround me. Fast forward two months and scientific names flood my brain, as families and genus float in and out of my mind. A spattering of leaves lie on my desk and a small collection of seeds, acorns and walnuts roll around somewhere beneath my bed. Sketches of bark and patterns of leaf venations are doodled on dog-eared notebook pages. Yet it is in this adoption of a new language of trees that mindfulness has become far easier. For it is challenging to get caught up in a net of thoughts when solely focusing on the species and family name of the trees that lie above.
Thus in my travels, amongst pit stops to well-known destinations, fall break road trips and spontaneous weekend adventures, the presence of sinuous roots and towering trunks never cease to grab my attention. On a recent fall break trip, I hopped in the car with a few friends and ventured to Charleston, South Carolina. It never ceases to amaze me how a simple four hour drive can result in a vast shift in culture and environment. Ferns were ubiquitous, tropical plants abundant, and complaints about humidity constant (this is when I miss the dry heat of home!) Yet what was truly breathtaking was the nearly 400-year-old Quercus Virginiana, dubbed the Angel Oak Tree. Erupting from the ground, its branches extended into a network of winding limbs, as dappled light shone through the changing leaves. We were dwarfed by its size, and in company of fellow environmental science majors, truly in awe.
Returning to campus, I find myself walking through the wooded paths on the trek to the hidden realm of Environmental Hall. I can’t help but glance upwards at the vast array of leaves that have begun to fall. As species names swirl in my head, learning has gone far beyond the classroom. I meander, slowing my pace, focusing on my breath, and find myself taking lessons from leaves.