Note - the following post was written by Chelsea, our Chief Mindfulness Officer and creator of "ARC: mindfulness for children."
I changed my walking route the other day as I am wont to do every so often. The park in which I’d been walking for the past few months was becoming a little too familiar and crowded, and my daily 45-minute walk was beginning to feel more like an hour and a half.
I chose the new trail based on the abundance of trees that I could see lining its sides from the road - fall is in full swing here and, like many others, I am a huge fan of the beautiful colors that come with the change of season. Combine that with the sounds of resident birds and rustling leaves, and you’ve got my idea of the perfect setting for a walking meditation.
I was about 15 minutes through my walk when I came to a fork in the trail. I decided on the section of the trail that veered off to the right and continued along for a few minutes when suddenly I was shocked into a full stop. It was a patch of bright red and gold leaves that had caught my attention, but it wasn’t so much the color itself that had stopped me (fiery colors are everywhere at this time of year). It was the vibrant contrast that the color presented. I had walked into a stretch of evergreens without realizing it, and there was a small copse of maple trees that had somehow found its home amidst the pines. My vision felt slightly seared as I stood there staring at the blazing red surrounded by all that green, and I realized that I’d been lost in my thoughts and unaware that the landscape had changed. I’d become habituated; the vibrant hues of fall had no longer been holding my attention, and it took a visual interruption to jolt me back into the present moment.
In the realm of psychology, the word habituation is defined as “the diminishing of a physiological or emotional response to a frequently repeated stimulus.” In short, we get used to things the more we’re exposed to them. This ability to quickly digest new information and move on to something else is an advantage to us as children because it helps us learn about the world around us (in fact, it’s seen as an indicator of intelligence in infants). But, what does a novelty-seeking nature mean for us in adulthood? Sure, it keeps us moving forward and learning, but the part of our brains that compels us to seek out new stimuli in order to learn and grow is the same part that causes us to lose wonder, interest, and contentment in things simply because they have become familiar to us.
Louis CK did a comedy bit awhile back in which he talked about how everything is amazing but no one is happy, and the message he was sending is worth reiterating: As a society, we have become so accustomed to the convenience of things around us that we no longer experience the amazement and joy that they afford. They no longer captivate us or inspire us or cause us to pause. We’ve grown mental calluses that numb our perception and experience, leaving us yearning for the ever-demanding more and searching for happiness outside of ourselves.
Habituation is in our nature and can be used to our advantage, but it’s important to maintain (or create) a balance between assimilation and apathy. As Larry Watson said:
"With so much unknown in this life, how little it takes for a face, a grove of trees, an outcropping of stone to become familiar.”
Familiarize yourself, but don’t let the extraordinary become displaced and mundane. Take care that the word “acquaint” doesn’t become synonymous with “forget,” and take pleasure in the small. Because sometimes the small is what inspires the most mindful moments.
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