Becca Balint: Moments of contemplation

Yesterday I had the great good fortune of being a guest lecturer in a class at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The topic was civic engagement and how to be more mindful in that work. Mindfulness has become a buzzword of sorts in the public lexicon, but it's essentially a very simple idea: focusing one's awareness on the present moment and striving to calmly acknowledge and accept emotions, thoughts, and sensations in your body.

I'm an extremely high energy person and have a brain that does not easily embrace a restful state. It's taken me many years to learn to accept this and to work with — and not against — the brain and body I was given. In the last five years I've become much more attuned to the signals I receive from within if I take a few moments to be still and attentive.

Many friends of mine practice yoga. Others embrace martial arts and circus arts. For some, dance is the pathway to a mindfulness practice, and for many others writing is the means through which meditation is given space in their lives. And religious or spiritual contemplation offers solace, serenity and focus for others.

But for so many of us, we struggle to integrate simple practices that would offer us therapeutic moments throughout the day. This is unfortunate because without moments of calm contemplation it's difficult to be our best selves in our work and in our daily interactions with each other.

It's important to note that I said "moments" and not hours. I'm reminded of the song "I'm Unworthy," by Cheryl Wheeler, that I used to sing as a badge of honor. She is at once embarrassed by her shortcomings and self-righteous in her sarcasm: "And I should chant in impossible positions until my legs appear to not have any bones." She mocks her inability to be self-reflective but sets up hours of meditation as the only alternative. But there's a gorgeous landscape of alternatives between these two fixed points.

The past month in the legislature has been a very difficult one as we've wrestled with the very fraught topic of gun violence prevention. Even before the horrible massacre at Parkland, we'd already put the Senate on a path towards voting on several gun bills. The killings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School — and the arrest of a student in Fair Haven for allegedly plotting his own mass shooting — certainly infused the debate and our work with a sense of both urgency and incredible weightiness.

As Majority Leader in the Senate, there was a great deal of pressure on me to hold a caucus majority together on these votes, which is not easy to do when everyone feels raw, exposed and attacked. (If you want to get a sense of what it felt like, watch a news clip of Governor Scott signing the bills into law. He endured threats and shouts of "Traitor!").

By the end of the week, after wrangling my caucus on the most controversial votes, I had a fever, a stomach ache and a sinus infection. Surely this was from a combination of poor sleep, too many emotional cocktails of anxiety and stress, and the fact that I dropped the ball on my daily mindfulness practices.

But today I begin anew. After I hit send on this column, I will head up into the woods behind my house in Montpelier. I will quiet my mind and focus on the dirt path, the creaking of tree limbs, and the sound of my breath as I make my way up and up and up to view the sunrise.

Becca Balint writes from Brattleboro on history, politics and culture. She currently serves as Senate majority leader in the Vermont Legislature. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.


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