Pat Hatfield, a naturalist and teacher in the Ohio state park system, conducts workshops for women who are wanting to reconnect to the natural world. She describes one workshop in particular with these words: “A creepy-crawly adventure in the grasses of the field. Bring journals, sketch pads, wear long pants.” Once the participants are gathered, Hatfield instructs them to “scatter into the grasses slowly and carefully. Feel your way until you find your spot. Sit down and stay there. Stay there until you know that spot, know it with all your senses. Write, record, or draw your experience, no matter what it is: boredom, awe, fear, curiosity, disgust, amazement.
One woman in the group whose name is Susan has a phobic terror of spiders. How ironic that her spot included within its circumference a large garden spider in her web. Susan later described the experience this way: “I sat totally far away from this yellow-black striped thing that was in the middle of a huge web. The colors and the size of the thing really got me. I don’t know when I’ve ever been so terrified. Once I sat down, I was paralyzed. All I could do was just sit there and wait for my heart attack. I had my eyes squinched shut.
“I decided as long as I couldn’t move anyway, I might as well look at this thing in its web,” Susan said. “So I opened my eyes. The weird thing is that when I looked, I calmed down. But I was too far away. I made some little scoots on my butt towards her—see, I’d already decided it was a ‘she’—until my heart pounded again. And I stopped, and my heart stopped pounding. And so I did this again and again. I got really close to her. She never moved. I got really close. I was certain she’d launch an attack.”
But the spider didn’t launch an attack. In fact, the spider did absolutely nothing. “She never moved, not a flicker.” Susan noted, “And here’s the weirdest thing of all. This is so weird. In the few minutes I sat with her, I got to know that spider. I got to know her web. I even got to know each tall grass that helped support it. Each one. And I forgot all about my fear, and I wasn’t afraid.”
Children are taught to fear such as spiders, snakes, insects of all kinds (except ladybugs, maybe). It tends toward the irrational. Not only that, such fears do significant harm; how many of us would kill a garden spider or behead a blacksnake, rather than share habitat? I don’t like it? I am afraid of it? Kill it. And so it goes that the lives of creatures intrinsic to the earth community yield in the face of human self-interest. The fact that there is an ecocentric perspective continues to elude us, and because we rarely challenge our sense of human privilege, we continue put our planet at risk.
I love Pat Hatfield’s story. It reminds me that all of us, young or adult, can learn mindfulness; mindfulness – I think of it as deep watching, deep listening, paying attention – tends to move us into deep wonder and mystery. Not only are we capable of mindfulness, I have come to consider mindfulness as moral action.
There is something else Pat Hatfield teaches, the difference between simply narrating an experience and actually giving it away. She describes it like this: “By giving the experience to someone, or several someones, the experiences multiply themselves. There is no shortage. When you give something like this away, you still have it, so there is only the multiplication.” In what sense is Susan giving away this story? How might it impact the people who receive it? Consider your own story telling. Is it simply about you? Or might there be a learning to give away?
I’m thinking that it’s time to go outside. Find a spot – at the base of a tree or at the edge of a stream or pond – even in a city park. Sit yourself down in a comfortable enough way. If it suits you, take a tablet for writing or drawing. On the other hand, there is value in your simple presence. Watch, and listen. Pay attention.
When you come back, tell someone about the experience. Frame the story so that you are able to give the experience away.