"There are no second acts in American lives." ( F. Scott Fitzgerald )
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How Marcel Proust found mindfulness - and how you can find it too

By Tessa Ivascu | Section(s): GET... , , | Add Your comment

GET COMFORTIn my article Curb multitasking by practicing mindfulness I wrote that, in short, mindfulness means « being there ». By bringing your awareness to focus on what your mind experiences at the present moment, you can : accurately perceive what is really happening – both outside and inside yourself ; appreciate the present experience without the need to judge it ; understand situations just as they are, create peak experiences in living and take effective action.

Now, I invite you to take a stroll down the path that led French writer Marcel Proust to the discovery of mindfulness. Not because I am a devoted Proust reader (I am) but because I feel the excerpt I’ll submit to your attention could be useful to those trying to practice mindfulness. I’ll go as far as to say that In Search of Lost Time actually means « in search of mindfulness ».
But even if Proust’s character in the novel reached mindfulness at times and was able to describe his quest in an unique way, it came in «flashes» : he never got any control over it, hence he could never plan or practice it. Nevertheless, I think his work is an inspiration for all those who want to understand the mental process leading to « being there ».

The purpose of our journey in time
Proust’s readers (if you are not one of them I encourage you to give it a try) know that one major theme of the Search is the need to go beyond the fleeting satisfactions or the unclear joys we get from our experiences. According to Proust, the purpose of our journey in time should be to reach the core of our impressions, hence to unveil the realities and truths hidden in even the most plain objects or life forms.
My readings about mindfulness practices (not the traditional, Buddhist ones, but the «secular» ones) made me irresistibly think of one of the most famous passages of the Search : when young Marcel, «the Narrator», discovers and observes «the hawthorn hedge» near the village of Combray. I consider it an outstanding example of how one engages in the exploration of both his/her thoughts and outer realities while focusing on a present experience, and of how the mind struggles to «be there» and «free itself».

Going from A to B... along the hawthorn hedge
As I mentioned before, getting «there» means going from A (Identify experience as mental content) to B (Observe life freely - without getting caught in the automatic identification with the «voices» and «scripts» your mind forges when «thinking»).
This includes : Noticing that the mind is continuously making commentary or judgement ; Admitting that this «babble» is not concrete reality or absolute truth, but just a discursive habit, an automatic «script» ; Distinguishing your thoughts from automatic babble and habitual reactions ; Releasing attachment to these habits.

Hawthorn flowers

Marcel, who was a young boy at the time, went from A to B without knowing it (still, he knew there had to be an answer for his «mysterious longing»). This happened one sunny afternoon in the countryside, during a walk with his father and his grandfather to Tansonville, near his family home at Combray.

(he observes his mind's automatic scripts)

When he «found the whole path throbbing with the fragrance of hawthorn-blossom», his mind got instantly filled with chatter : comparisons, judgements, connections to past experiences and so on. «The hedge resembled a series of chapels» ; «the scent that swept out over me from them was as rich, and as circumscribed in its range, as though I had been standing before the Lady-altar» ; the flowers held out «radiating ‘nerves’ in the flamboyant style of architecture, like those which, in church, framed the stair to the rood-loft or closed the perpendicular tracery of the windows»…

(he admits that his automatic scripts prevent him from fully experiencing the present moment)

After a while, «the Narrator» becomes deeply frustrated with this chatter : «But it was in vain that I lingered before the hawthorns, to breathe in, to marshal before my mind (which knew not what to make of it) their invisible and unchanging odor».
He feels that these «scripts» offer him «an indefinite continuation of the same charm», «but without letting me delve into it any more deeply, like those melodies which one can play over a hundred times in succession without coming any nearer to their secret».

(he tries to distingush his thoughts from automatic scripts)

He therefore awkwardly tries to release attachment to his discursive habit in order to observe freely the mental content provided by the hawthorns :
«I turned away from them for a moment so as to be able to return to them with renewed strength» ; «then I returned to my hawthorns, and stood before them as one stands before those masterpieces of painting which, one imagines, one will be better able to ‘take in’ when one has looked away, for a moment, at something else; but in vain did I shape my fingers into a frame, so as to have nothing but the hawthorns before my eyes; the sentiment which they aroused in me remained obscure and vague, struggling and failing to free itself, to float across and become one with the flowers.»

(he releases attachment to automatic scripts)

Suddenly, Marcel receives unexpected help from his grandfather, who shows him the way to mindfulness by simply telling him : “You are fond of hawthorns; just look at this pink one; isn’t it pretty?”
These no-nonsense words («just look») propel the boy’s mind to a superior level of awareness. Bringing his mind to focus on the pink flower, he feels «that rapture which we feel on seeing a work by our favorite painter quite different from any of those that we already know, or, better still, when someone has taken us and set us down in front of a picture of which we have hitherto seen no more than a pencilled sketch...».

Now he simply looks at the pink hawthorn the way children look at biscuits covered with pink sugar, «whose beauty is most evident to the eyes of children, and for that reason must always seem more vivid and more natural than any other tints, even after the child’s mind has realized that they offer no gratification to the appetite.»
Comparisons with "Lady-altars", "flamboyant styles of architecture", churches, stairs and windows, now they're all gone ! Marcel reaches the core of the present experience. Better yet, he finally understands the lesson that the hawthorn had meant to teach him by being there, in front of his mind :
«And, indeed, I had felt at once […] that it was in no artificial manner, by no device of human construction, that the festal intention of these flowers was revealed, but that it was Nature herself who had spontaneously expressed it.»

... Or take a shortcut
Now, do me a favor. In the same way that Marcel Proust learned to «just look», please try to «just read » the full excerpt from his Search here. Read it the way Maryanne Wolf, a professor of child development at Tufts University, advises us to read Proust in her new book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain : «as fast as you can without losing Proust’s meaning».
Guess what ? In reading how Marcel Proust struggled to live mindfully you will find one of the best (and the easiest) mindfulness practices. Why ? Don’t let your mind bother to find out. Just «be there».

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Anonymous said...

Fantastic commentary! Thank you so much. I was trying to remember the origin of this story, which I heard "back in the day," for the very reason you sight it here, though in my mind I consider it an example of advaita. Nevertheless, bravo commentary! Thank you so much for publishing :-)

Teresa Halminton said...

Thank you for sharing the post! I learned a lot from it.
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