Moments of Peace Karlyle Tomms 7/30/16
Pinnacle Mountain stands alone along the Arkansas River, and from the I-630 bridge appears like a burned out volcano in the distance. It isn’t. It takes about two or three hours to climb the mountain from the park at the base to the boulder covered peak. The trails become ever more steep near the top and climbing over boulders is required to complete the journey.
Once there, the views are spectacular. On the east side, the Arkansas River can be seen drifting through downtown Little Rock. On the west side, dark blue Lake Maumelle is usually filled with colorful sail boats. To the north, the Arkansas River curls around the base of the mountain, and tug boats push barges of merchandise up and down the river. On the south side, miles of farm land and neighborhoods stretch as far as the eyes can see.
When I lived in Little Rock, this was one of my places of refuge from the stresses of life. In addition to the trails up the mountain, there are hiking trails that wind off through the forest on the opposite side of the park. I learned that I could sneak away from one of those trails, (Yes, I know I’m not supposed to) and take a five or ten-minute walk through the woods to a cliff overhanging the river. I used to go there and sit on the edge of that cliff with my legs dangling over a rock. There I would watch the boats traverse the curving river and spend quiet time alone in nature.
Have you ever noticed when you just sit quietly, alone in nature, you automatically calm down? No drugs or alcohol are needed to sooth the anxiety. It is soothed simply by sitting and observing the natural world. This is what I call rocking in the arms of mother nature. I learned to do this when I was a child by observing my grandmother. She would leave the house angry, be gone for an hour or two out on the farm, and when she came back, the anger was gone. You could tell that she wasn’t just pretending not to be mad anymore, the anger was simply gone. Since my grandfather was a bit of a controlling tyrant, she had frequent reasons to be angry. He was so controlling of her that the first check she ever signed on their joint checking account was to pay for his funeral. She once told me that she stayed with him because she made a promise for better or for worse. I responded, “Unfortunately, about all you got was worse.”
I watched her leave the house angry and come back in peace. So, when I became upset, I began to leave the house for hours alone on the farm. I didn’t know what she did during her time out there, and when I was a child, I didn’t ask. I simply left the house. At first I meandered about the pastureland of approximately 180 acres. I went down into a huge sink hole that edged one of our pastures. It was so ancient that full grown trees grew within it all the way to the bottom. I found a rock that sat in the middle of one of our pastures. It was about as high as the average chair and about as wide as a small dining table. Sometimes, I would sit on that rock, but it was too much out in the open. Sometimes I sat on the bank of one of our various ponds, and listened to the frogs sing. Eventually, I found huge rock that was about the same size as a large home storage building, yet taller. The rock was on a hillside that rose up from the spring fed creek that ran across the back side of our farm. Trees grew around it, spread branches over the top and shaded it from hot summer sun. Don’t the hill, I could hear the waters of the creek trickling away on natures journey. This became my favorite refuge.
I would climb that rock and sit for hours up in the tree line where no one could see me even if they walked around the base. There among the branches of oaks and hickory, I watched squirrels play, listened to cardinals sing and observed the leaves gently dancing in the summer breeze. There, I calmed down. I didn’t necessarily give up the resentments I had about being mistreated by my grandfather or my alcoholic uncle who lived with us, but I relaxed enough to rest. Sometimes, I even fell asleep atop that rock only to awaken as dusk was casting low shadows over the world. At those times, I had to rush back to the house before darkness fell.
I was never quite as good with letting the anger go as Grandma was, but I was at least able to find some calm before I came home. Years later, when I learned to meditate, I found another source of peace and found it to be very similar to the experience I had atop my rock. When I saw the movie “Phenomenon” with John Travolta, it perfectly depicted those states of mindfulness that occur when one is deeply in tune with the present moment. There is a particular scene in the movie where, Travolta’s character becomes very angry. He goes home and begins digging aggressively at the dirt in his garden. As he is digging, a breeze comes through. He stops digging, and is transported fully into the present moment. Watching the leaves gently dancing, he becomes centered in the experience of mindfulness and becomes peaceful again.
When we are fully centered in a peaceful moment, it is impossible to have resentments, anger, guilt or fear. All those experiences are based either in the past or future, in some memory or the imagination. The bottom line is this; if it is not happening right now, in this very moment, it is either a memory or a fantasy. Since neither a memory or a fantasy can be real, ultimately the only reality we experience is the present moment. Our mind can travel in time, go back to some memory, whether pleasant or unpleasant, or go forward into our imagining of what the future might become, but the body cannot travel in time. It can only be in this moment, right here, right now. We can remember the last moment or imagine the next, but the body is always here. When we are able to focus our attention into the moment, there is peace. The way we know we are here in this moment is to become as fully aware as possible of what we experience in our senses, what we physically feel, see, hear, smell or taste. This is the essence of mindfulness.
One of the tricks of learning to become mindful is simply to slow down. If there is a dollar on the sidewalk you are most likely to see it if you are casually strolling by, not rushing or running. The slower we go, the more aware we become, and when we are able to stop for a while and be present, we experience a greater peace. Although nature is wonderful for helping us do this, it is not absolutely necessary. We can learn to do it on a bench at the mall or in an airport. We can learn to take a moment out of our busy day to pull our mind away from schedules, deadlines, and other pressures to simply be aware of our surroundings. We can take a walk after work or simply sit in a quiet room and pull our attention as fully as possible into the moment.
If you can’t get out into nature, go to a quiet room. Turn off everything, the phone, the computer, TV, radio—everything. Sit quietly, with your feet flat on the floor, your hands in your lap and your back straight. Imagine a force at the top of your head gently pulling you up toward the ceiling, so your back becomes straight. With your eyes closed, look upward. Begin to breathe as deeply and slowly as you can. Simply pay attention to the feeling of breathing, to the air flowing in and out of your nose, the sensation of your chest rising and gently falling. Imagine that your whole body can take the breath all the way down to your toes. If your mind wanders, gently and repeatedly pull it back to focusing on the moment and the sensations of the moment. Then pay attention to your feet. The sensation of your feet on the floor, the weight of your feet, anything that may be touching your feet. Then feel your ankles, your shins and calves. Feel your knees, your legs against the chair, the weight of your body on the chair. Feel anywhere that any fabric is touching your legs. Feel your waist band, your back, your belly and your chest. Notice the sensation of breathing and whether the fabric touches your torso in one place with one breath, and touches somewhere else with the next. Feel your collar, your sleeves, any jewelry you might be wearing. Feel your face, your head, your lips touching together, your tongue lying inside your mouth. Feel the air flowing in and out of your nose as you breathe. Feel your eyes and the top of your head.
When you have spent time simply feeling your body, even if it is pain, then listen to the gentle sounds of silence. You may hear a clock ticking, traffic passing, a dog barking up the street. You may hear the heating or cooling unit kick on or off. You may hear a fan or various other little sounds that fill the silent moment.
After you have been sitting for a while pulling your attention repeatedly back to the gentle sounds of silence, then open your eyes and look at everything. Look as thoroughly and as completely as you possibly can look. See colors, shapes, patterns, textures, reflections and shadows. Look at the moment with as much attention to detail as you possibly can. Allow the present moment to give you a rest form the mind’s time travel into the past or the future. Give your mind the comfort of being focused on the present moment. Let peace come.
When I became an adult, after I had finished graduate school, I mentioned to my grandmother that I had witnessed her getting angry, then going away for a while and coming back in peace. She told me that when she went out to the farm, she walked the fence rows looking to see if any repairs needed to be made, and she also said something profound, “I realized that every time I got angry, my stomach got upset, and I knew if I didn’t learn how to stop being angry, I was going to make myself sick.”
How many of us have the awareness that our minds can have such a significant influence on our bodies? My grandmother realized things that later research came to prove. The body is affected by, and directed by the mind. Of itself, it is nothing. Our thinking, even the deep subconscious thoughts we don’t think we think, can have a profound effect on our health and wellbeing. This is one of the reasons prayer works. When we align our mind with peace, our body responds with health.
My grandmother lived in a mini hell of a home life until after my grandfather died. My grandfather and my uncle were never happy. They seemed to be set on misery, and making others around them miserable as they could. They did this until the day they died. It was rare to see even a glimmer of a smile from either of them, and they both died within a year of one another. After that, my grandmother lived many years by herself, and was perhaps the happiest I had ever seen her during that time. Prior to that time, she had determined that she would find her happiness and peace anyway. She determined that she was not going to let frustration drag her down into the mire where my uncle and grandfather wallowed in anger and resentment. She found a way to let it go, and in so doing, gave me an example worthy of following.
Everywhere I have lived, I have found a way to my peaceful places. Even when I lived in apartments, I took walks or found places of refuge. Sometimes I had to drive to them. Sometimes, I had no choice but to create the mindfulness within my own little cubicle of an apartment. When I was in Nashville, I walked down to the Cumberland River late at night and sat by the river with my guitar. Sometimes I pulled sounds from the guitar strings. Sometimes I simply sat and listened to the city when almost everyone else was asleep. The Cumberland is little more crowded there these days. When I lived in Missouri, I had a wraparound stone porch on the front of my Victorian farm house. I lined it with hanging flowers, sat on the porch swing, listened to my wind chimes, and watched the humming birds. Now on the coast of Texas I have found that there are places where I can slip away from the usual paths, and sit unseen by the water’s edge while I listen to the gentle waves of the Gulf of Mexico. Wherever I live. Wherever I go from here, I will find my refuge, or I will create a place where my mind can rest from the weary drudgery of life’s stresses. No matter where I am, I will find my moments of peace.