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The Mindfulness Lizard

Don’t move, lizard. I want to capture you just like that.

I had just finished a run on a hot morning during my recent visit to New Orleans. Standing there, dripping sweat outside my parents’ Uptown home, I spotted a lizard on a fence post.

As any New Orleanian knows, a lizard on a fence post is nothing to write home about. In fact, on many summer mornings there seems to be a lizard on every fence post. But this one caught my eye because it was sitting so still, as if surveying the neighbourhood. And the scene was iconic New Orleans: the iron fence post, the broken sidewalks, the lush greenery. I had to have a picture. The world needed to see this.

I pulled my phone out of my pocket and switched on the camera. Then I silently snuck up on the lizard and started snapping from all angles, in all directions. From above, with the sidewalks behind. From below, looking up at a partly-cloudy sky. From straight on, his little reptile eyes staring into my soul. What a shot! Maybe this will go viral. Please stay still, lizard – I don’t want to miss this opportunity.

And that was when it hit me: I wasn’t really focused on the lizard at all.

I’m relatively new to mindfulness, the ethic that encourages us to stop and live in the moment. In many ways, I’m a great candidate for it: my mind races a mile a minute, I have a pretty high-stress career, and I’m a lot of people’s spiritual leader. As a rabbi, I’m interested in mindfulness from a spiritual perspective: the ways that it is known to slow us down, to increase gratefulness, to encourage generosity. As a stressed out person, I’m interested in its ability to reduce stress and help us lead happier lives.

One of the most powerful teachings of the mindfulness ethic is that we have the ability to focus on minds on the present – on living in the moment – and that we often go through life doing just the opposite. Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction writes:

If you start paying attention to where your mind is from moment to moment throughout the day…chances are you will find that considerable amounts of your time and energy are expended on clinging to memories, being absorbed in reverie, and regretting things that have already happened and are over. And you will probably find that as much or more energy is expended in anticipating, planning, worrying, and fantasizing about the future and what you want to happen or don’t want to happen. (Full Catastrophe Living p. 10)

There is something to be said for planning and analyzing. We grow as human beings when we learn from our past mistakes; and we accomplish our best when we make plans and implement them. But when we spend all our lives in the past and the future, we fail to live in the present, and we lose out on the opportunity to notice, appreciate, and enjoy what is going on in any given moment.

When I was playing lizard photographer, my mind was focused on anything but the moment – on finding the perfect angle, on the response I might get on Facebook, on the fabulously successful photography career that would be launched with this single photo. And my eyes weren’t focused on the lizard either, but rather on a screen in front of it. I was experiencing the world through a pixelated filter.

When I realized this, I did something that was at once challenging and liberating. I turned off my phone, put it in my pocket, and looked at the lizard. Just looked. I watched the way it moved; how its tiny stomach moved in and out as it breathed; the different colours of green that intermingled on its back.

I suppose my reptile photography career will just have to be shelved for later. (Well…there was one decent picture.) In the meantime, I came away feeling better, knowing that for just a few minutes, I had lived in the real world. I had focused on, and appreciated, what was in front of me.

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  1. Karen
    July 25, 2017 at 3:05 pm

    thanks for the reminder. I have been catching myself thinking a lot lately of ways I can recapture the special times of my life rather than creating ones; remembering how a whole day would go by without stopping to check what time I had to be ready for what was next, or having my phone in hand ready in case something “else” were to happen. Wonderful things happen every day, and I would like to stop missing them while I wait for something else.

  2. Esbee
    July 25, 2017 at 5:07 pm

    Great post! It’s so easy to fall trap to viewing reality through a camera screen rather than being in the moment.

    Sometimes you’ve just got to look at the lizard 🦎

  3. Rachel
    July 25, 2017 at 9:26 pm

    Micah,
    Thank you for this piece.
    I didn’t realize your parents live in NoLa.
    We are just up the road in Old Metairie.
    Let me know next time you’re in town, and I’ll join you on a nature walk.

  4. Elaine
    July 26, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Thanks Micah. I had a similar experience yesterday. While kayaking off the coast of Vancouver Island I made a choice to put my camera gear away and to experience the immense beauty unfolding before me. To look at it all, the shadow the light, and the path of the eagle. I still took plenty of pictures but they were with my minds eye and saved in the hard drive of my soul.

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