Friday, May 22, 2009


In french and spanish, vacation is plural: Les grandes vacances; las vacaciones. The word, vacation, might seem odd if you think about it. Vacating. Emptying. What is the essence of these vacations? From the way we all talk about them, and the traditions we have of pressing upon each other our mementos of them (our photos and slides, in the old days; our Flickr streams now), and how we remember them (specific scenes, incidents, people we met, things we ate), no one could be blamed for believing that they are in essence what we do to have fun, experience new places, relax, and meet new people. But that word, vacate, reveals their essence more deeply. What the grand vacancies are really about is what we leave behind when we take off.

I experienced this acutely this year as I planned my own grandes vacances. I have made a trip to Southeast Arizona at least in the spring, and for about 10 years, in the spring and fall each year, first to visit my Dad when he retired to Tucson, and then just to bird the incredible environments of the Sky Islands -- the Santa Ritas, the Huachucas, and the Chiricahuas. Google them. They are amazing extensions of the Mexican Sierra into the U.S. Sonoran desert. I typically stayed from 3 to 6 days, and, once the visits became centered on birding, I planned them with my girlfriend birding buddies. I always wanted to stay longer to experience the little mountain towns as places where people lived and worked, not just birding stops. But I never felt that I had time. Spring is so full of wonderful things to do at home, as April and May are two of our most beautiful months in Austin, before it starts to warm up so much that one wants to get away. And of course, there were the demands of my work, and later my school, schedules. But this year of "taking time off," this year of reflection, of stepping back, of Being more than doing -- this year seemed like the one to take the plunge and spend more time in the Sky Islands. Not just to bird. So I made a reservation at Casita Frontera in Patagonia for two weeks in the middle of April. (Photo credit: cobalt123; CC*BY*NC*SA; visit cobalt's wonderful flickr stream to see more photos of SE Arizona.)

I second-guessed that decision a hundred times as the departure date approached. What was I thinking? Two weeks in Patagonia in April? What was I going to do there for two weeks? But I didn't back out. I kept the date and continued to prepare to vacate. Then the day came and I left my cat and all the things I must do every day to accommodate her needs and desires and keep her out of trouble. And I left her as companion, soft fuzzy fur ball, cute kitten, warm snuggly thing. I left my garden in its mid-spring transition from bulbs to the perennials and annuals of summer, its need for constant monitoring, weeding, replanting, watering against the gradual heating up of the soil and the air, fertilizing, pruning and loving attention every morning as I have a cup of coffee and stroll around looking at everything that has changed overnight. And I left the garden as place of rest, relaxation, rejuvenation, contemplation and immense enjoyment of the wonders of nature. I left my job with its neat little projects, to-do lists and phone calls to return and emails to answer. And I left my job as identity, "what I do" when people ask, my life as a copyright attorney, my sense of being of use and of value. I left my house with its myriad chores that require constant attention to keep them from piling up and turning my house into a sloppy place I couldn't abide. And I left my house as nurturing space arranged to my liking and cool and warm and inviting. I left my kitchen where I bake, cook and brew up tea and coffee, stock the shelves and refrigerator, and deplete them in a breathing in and breathing out that never stops. I left my friends, well, most of them. A few were planning to join me in Arizona for several days at a stretch. I left my husband, who was busy with his two spring installations in Houston anyway and needed to focus on them, so it was just as well that I was off doing something else. And I left my mom, whom I hadn't left alone for two weeks in years, though she is now living in Assisted Living and ostensibly, has enough help to get by just fine without my coming by all that often and "checking on her."

In short, I left everything that I do routinely, almost without thinking, sometimes literally without thinking, on autopilot, not really in the present moment. Everything that keeps me doing all day long, the things that leave little if any time to just be. And I took off for Arizona where my time would be almost entirely unstructured, without established routine, and certainly no autopilot. I would decide how to be and what to do each moment, each hour, each day, as I went along. That's what the grandes vacances would be: a big vacancy in the daily doing.

Such a big vacancy could present itself as a gaping hole to be filled up with a million things that I think I have to "do" while I am "on vacation" or simply as space, not to be filled up at all, but left vacant, open for things like observation, breathing, walking and being present with the body and the senses -- really seeing the where and what of each experience, minute to minute -- being present and no more and no less. Les grandes vacances indeed.

It was incredible. It was so easy to meditate every morning, to exercise, to walk, to climb mountains, to practice french, to read and reflect upon books and videos I wanted to learn from, to spend time talking to my friends on the phone or in email, to eat simple wholesome meals I prepared myself, to take good care of myself (in the ultra-dry air of the desert), to listen to my body's wisdom about stretching and balance. Oh it was wonderful to be unplugged from all the things that demand my time and attention at home in Austin, to establish that I could actually drop unhealthy habits, institute healthy new ones, and most importantly, be present moment to moment at least sometime, a lot more of the time than I've ever managed before or since. And I had enough time with my friends who came to bird to practice being present in relationships, practice what I was reading about in A New Earth, My Stroke of Insight and other books about the brain and the power of our thoughts. It was sweet.

Then it was time to go home. It took only about a week for me to give up hope of integrating any of these new ways of being into my real life. The day-to-day just took me by the hand and off we flew through day, after day, after day. Autopilot reigned supreme. No time to be -- only time to do, do, do. It got worse when Dennis came home from three years of living in another city a week later. Very tricky, this re-integrating two lives into a shared existence, so it makes perfect sense that I might not have as much time for meditating and yoga. But there's nothing in the two-person day-to-day that precludes being present every minute. It's just that one so easily gets swept away by doing and gets lost in thoughts, worries, plans, actions and emotions, and forgets entirely to be here now, to be the observer of the experience.

But after a while I realized it was not hopeless, really. Two weeks turned into three, and then four, as I thought about how exactly vacating had helped me be present. Vacating's essential element was the absence of routine. The absence of routine seems to open your eyes, enliven your senses, and call you to experience your life in the present. What is extremely difficult in your normal environment, looking around you and just seeing, without labeling, categorizing, judging, planning, comparing, and riding off into a haze of chatter, is easy when everything around you is all new.

Vacating is not the only way to step outside routine and open to the richness of your life. I saw that I could start each day with a reminder to be present! If I got off on the right foot first thing in the morning, I wouldn't be so likely to find that the whole day had gone by and I had been on autopilot all day, that is, I hadn't been present a single minute. Changing life-long habits of unawareness and unconsciousness is challenging, even when you really, really want to. It requires patience and practice, practice, practice to recognize that you are not present. It's ironic: one must be present to recognize that one is not present. Or more positively, one remedies being unaware by simply noticing that one has been unaware. It really is quite simple. But not easy.

I reread summaries of what I had learned from the reading I had done earlier this spring, and began to apply what I had learned in the midst of the full catastrophe that life tends to be. I began to just be present, every once in a while, in doing *whatever* it was I was doing. That's all it takes. Being present is simply being the observer of your experience, your state of being, of interacting, of thinking, of feeling. Instead of merely being the experience, you are the experiencer. Instead of feeling anxious about a challenging chore or task, for example, being present is just noticing that you are anxious, noticing how it feels in your body, what it does to you, how you actually experience anxiety -- in short, grounding your awareness in your body, rather than in the thoughts that chatter incessantly in your left brain, the stream of chatter that is, quite literally, cranking out the chemicals that cause anxiety. It is the same with being present in the garden: noticing the myriad objects that exist in the garden in the early morning, slowly, mindfully sipping a cup of coffee, while you walk around and just notice all that is. That is being present for a walk in the garden. Presence is also not getting caught up in naming everything, describing it all, thinking through what you plan to do with it later today, what you did with it yesterday, or a conversation you had while sitting in the garden many years ago.

So, for now I'm using the experience of my day-to-day life, in which I am often caught up in mental chatter, planning, worrying, reacting, fear, anger or frustration, to wake up little by little. I count it a successful day if I woke up from unawareness (from identification with the chatter) a handful of times. I would be jubilant if I could snap to awareness in the midst of a powerful emotional reaction.

That is the ultimate goal of moment-to-moment awareness: to be able to act in the world out of a more balanced, centered sense of what needs to be done. Looking around the garden without labeling, judging and reacting (in other words, silencing mental chatter) is practice for the real-life challenges of looking at your options for action in any given moment with the benefit of the perspectives of all parts of your brain, not just your reactive, emotional mental chatter perspective. The more balanced perspectives bring to decision-making a sense of calmness that transcends "understanding." Sort of like a vacation without having to leave home.