The Power of Mindfulness: What Nature Can Teach Us
Several years ago, I had the good fortune of visiting Africa and going on a safari. As a lifelong animal lover, this was truly a dream come true for me. Being able to see lions, giraffes, and elephants in their natural habitat was incredibly thrilling and something I will never forget. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was that I was also about to learn an important lesson about the power of the mind.
It was mid-morning, and our group was in the Serengeti Preserve in Tanzania. The weather was perfect, sunny but not too hot, and the morning had already been action-packed in terms of spotting animals. I was glancing down at my camera, hastily editing a few of the pictures I had taken and changing the setting, when out of the corner of my eye I saw something dart across the plain. When I looked up, I saw a lioness in hot pursuit of an impala. The lion sprinted after its prey, closing in with fierce tenacity. The impala, sensing imminent danger, looked up from grazing on the grass and bolted as fast as it could. The lion closed in, and the impala was almost within its reach. At the last instant, the impala turned and was able to gain some separation from its pursuer. The lion slowed down slightly and then stopped, unable to continue its chase. Its meal would have to come later.
Our jeep rolled towards where the impala was now standing, a hundred yards or so away. My heart was racing, and I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. Sweat began to drip off my forehead, and I had to make a conscious effort to steady my hands. As we pulled up alongside the animal, it would have been hard to imagine that such a frightening scenario had unfolded just moments before. The impala didn’t appear alarmed; rather, she had resumed grazing on the tall grass. She appeared completely at ease again, with no indication that her life had nearly come to an unfortunate end just earlier.
“We’re so busy watching out for what’s just ahead of us that we don’t take time to enjoy where we are”
– Bill Watterson
As I looked on, continuing to breathe heavily while gripping the handle on the inside of our jeep, I felt someone pat me softly on the shoulder. Our guide, Winston, must have sensed my unease and was now looking at me with a slight grin. “You’re moreshaken up than she is,” he exclaimed, gently poking fun at my fright. He motioned over to the impala, which continued to eat the grass with seemingly not a care in the world. “Once the chase is over,” he said, “the hunter goes back to sleep, and the hunted goes back to eating. They don’t think about it, they just do what they do.” He continued, “If that happened to us, we’d be thinking about it for hours, days, even years. But the impala is different. The impala just lives in the moment. That’s why she’s so peaceful.”
From Mindlessness to Mindfulness
Do you find it hard to slow down and merely be present? Does your mind tend to wander back towards the past, or constantly glance forward towards the future? For many of us, it’s all too easy to fall into this pattern of feeling stuck on “autopilot,” mindlessly rushing through things without much conscious awareness, and focusing incessantly on the finish line with little connection to the process.
This state of mindlessness is incredibly common, particularly in our frenzied and often chaotic modern world. Unlike the impala from earlier in the chapter, we have a difficult time simply “grazing” in our everyday lives. Rather, many of us find ourselves constantly flooded with worry, regret, and fear. In his fascinating and fun book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Stanford biologist Robert Sapolsky describes this very phenomenon and contrasts it with what occurs in the animal kingdom. As he explains, stress for animals tends to be episodic, while for humans it is often chronic. As a result, stress-related problems such as ulcers and hypertension are far less common among animals in the wild as compared to humans.Like the impala on the Serengeti, animals quickly return to their natural baseline once a threat passes. They don’t ruminate or stew over the danger they averted, they simply return to grazing. As Sapolsky humorously asks, “how many hippos worry about whether social security is going to last as long as they will, or what they are going to say on a first date?” We humans, however, are not so fortunate. We are constantly anticipating dangers that lie ahead, or lamenting losses from the past. This perpetual state of arousal raises our stress levels, which in turn can lead to a host of other problems including depression, anxiety, and physical health risks.