GOB 88 Mindfulness

(This article first appeared in the March 2017 edition of 'Birdwatching' magazine)

Mindfulness seems to be the buzzword of the last year or so… it’s a therapeutic technique, the idea being that you achieve a desired mental state by focusing your awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, etc. It has come to be a shorthand for those activities that produce the desired serenity.

It’s not a new idea of course, just a recasting of an old one. Hindus were meditating 3,500 years ago!

Our pastimes are not all adrenaline rich activity some are very much in the mindfull mode. Isaac Walton wrote in ‘The Complete Angler’ (1653) “God never did make a more calm, quiet, innocent recreation than angling.” He also reported Sir Henry Wotton saying “…angling was an employment for his idle time, which was then not idly spent, a rest to his mind, a cheerer of his spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness;" and "that it begat habits of peace and patience in those that professed and practised it." To my mind everything these guys said about fishing I can say about birding, but in spades!

I have maintained for many years that a day spent birding is a day added to your life.

But like other pastimes some of us are more mindful than others.  Just as there are anglers who trudge the banks spinning lures or whipping flies across rushing streams, so there are birders who want to rush through the countryside chasing rarities or adding ticks. Any long-term reader of this column will know that I believe we ‘…also serve who only stand and wait’. You will also know that more and more pundits are declaring the need for wilderness not for the sake of the planet or even its wildlife, but because it very directly impinges on our own mental health. Sure, we need green and unpolluted spaces to act as the world’s lungs and reservoirs of wildlife, but even if that was not the case they would be needed to keep our souls in fine fettle.

Why is this important to more than the individual birder’s well-being? Simply, because the more we adopt this mindful way of being, the more good we will incidentally do for the birds. Manning the conservation barricades always leaves one open to the accusation that we are just tree-hugging, woolley minded, liberal do-gooders putting the needs of hawfinches above that of humans. Like you I think this is a spurious argument, but one seemingly in vogue right now as selfish politics seem to reign here and overseas. As a culture, we seem to be losing site of compassion for suffering humanity, let alone cruelty in farming, the unnecessary culling of badgers or the needs of non-furry beasties. If we are back to the days of selfishness and greed then we need do more than admonish and cajole, we need to show how conservation can be self-serving.

If we all want to reduce stress and retain our sanity then we need to find ways to spend time mindfully… what used to be called ‘communing with nature’ does just that.

Have you ever sat on a bird reserve bench with the sun on your face, swifts wheeling over the reed-beds, warblers chattering in the bushes and frogs croaking in the stream; drifting between sleep and wakefulness revelling in the world as it once was and could and should be once again? We birders can leave the rate race’s existentialist nightmare and show others how to join the human race again.