I gawked like a tourist visiting a big city for the first time. My neck craned as I looked up into the canopy of trees. Light green, dark green, seemingly blinding Technicolor shades of spring with the bright sky filtering through the leaves.
The Pacific Northwest in the springtime is lit up in a magnificent riot of color, exciting for Alaskans like me who are emerging from a world of blues, grays and, these days, browns.
Last week I took in these beautiful sights and marveled at them for about one minute before my brain went back to its usual pattern: prod at a problem, worry about work, get frustrated at something very small and then feel frustrated about that, too.
It was in this moment, running trails near Seattle, that I realized that even the amazing array of spring colors and sunshine weren’t enough to snap me out of my thoughts. I realized I was making a decision to stay locked into this pattern instead of being present for my own run. My yogi friends will roll their eyes at me for finally getting the memo. Well, yogi people probably don’t roll their eyes, but maybe they’ll exhale a little more forcefully. I reminded myself on that run that being fully present in whatever I do focuses me in ways that pay off in different parts of life.
Thoughts, in their own way, provide me with a decision point. I can’t control what pops up in my mind, but I can coax myself not to dwell there if it’s not productive. I can choose to focus on the beautiful scenery around me. I can choose to actually be on my run, rather than running physically while being far away mentally.
I decided to be present on my run. It took a few minutes to bat away familiar stressful thoughts, and I actually felt a sense of push-back — these thoughts are important! Maybe I can solve something! What will I think about if not this? Mindfulness is a buzzword; it’s lame!
But I forced myself to focus on the green. I thought about my lungs working hard and taking in good air. I congratulated my feet for repeatedly hitting the ground. If an anxious feeling or a problem to muddle on popped up, I told myself to just look at the leaves and leave my attention there. I flooded my mind with other thoughts, about place and feeling happy to be outdoors in a healthy body.
After about five minutes, this started to work. My mood changed. I started my run tangled up in a barrage of worries I was picking at and ended it feeling grateful for the opportunity to be outside, active and surrounded by green.
This doesn’t mean my problems go away.
But what’s the point of taking time to go outside if I’m not fully there? And what’s the point of going back to work if I’m wishing I could be outside instead of using that time to actually take on what needs my attention?
I’m not saying that I suddenly live in a magical perspective where I can control my brain fully, where the background noise stops. At any given moment I’m probably workshopping some issue in the back of my mind, and I am always thinking vaguely about dinner. But to some degree I can choose where the bulk of my attention goes — and if I’m choosing to be outdoors, it pays off to bring my brain with me.
Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.