When I was in high school, after my classes were done, I’d walk towards Lake Michigan and wait at the public bus stop on nearest large road. There was not much to do as the cars whizzed by. Not too many kids relied on the public bus, so many times I was alone facing the road and the lake shore park across the way. Sometimes I’d read. But often, I would sit there on the concrete and look up at the sky.
I’d watch the movement of white against blue against gray. I’d see just a small opening in the clouds beginning and then gathering clarity, revealing azure behind the mist, and finally rays of sun visibly filtering across a milky white backdrop.
I’d try to read the clouds for impending weather shifts, which could happen moment to moment. But mostly I’d take in the beauty of it. The fluffy cloud formations and play of light reminded me of a renaissance painting. Magic.
Even now, looking at clouds above, I imagine sitting up there. It looks so close I could nearly touch it. There’s a reason those fantastical Italian ceiling frescos feature the sky, clouds, and beams of light so prominently, and why we picture the gods in this "celestial" realm. It’s otherworldly.
As I look up today, I stop to consider two ways my sky-study supports my life philosophy based on Stoic principles.
First off, I think looking up offers a kind of reverse "view from above." We could call it “a view from below.”
Traditionally, the ancients practiced the “view from above” by picturing themselves floating high over the people and cities and world that they knew, and seeing things from a new perspective where our problems and, indeed, our whole lives look small and inconsequential.
If we try the “view from below”as a practice, as we look up, we are reminded of the beauty and structure of our whole planet and the environment we live in—and of how small we are in the wider perspective. Seeing the timeless sky above, one that originated with the dawn of Earth, also serves to indicate how fleeting and short our time is.
Looking up, we can also feel very keenly that we all see the same sky, the same clouds. Every human being, no matter his or her location or profession or status, can study those remarkable clouds and sinuous patterns of light and shade. And we all can appreciate them.
In that way, it’s a reminder of our inter-connectedness as well. Looking at the clouds and sky can serve as an exercise in what the ancients called cosmopolitanism. Because we all share the same sky, and we can all potentially respond to its beauty and its life-giving light and air.
So the next time you’re outside, take a few minutes to turn towards the sky. Really study it. Be moved by it. And let it serve as a vivid reminder of our small place in this world, of the beauty and joy we can find here, and of the millions (billions?) of other people who are also looking up at this very moment.
Cascade Falls, Emerald Bay, in Tahoe, California: where my bad mood was suddenly broken by a very tactile moment
Long streaks of water tumbled over the gray granite mountain walls above us. Dark streams gushed past well-washed tree trunks and over green shoots bearing pink wildflowers.
As I stood there taking in the scene, I was angry and frustrated. About a lot of things. Part of me couldn’t even bear to look around. It was too beautiful, and it didn’t match my mood at all.
I bent down to get a closer look at the rushing streams. Then I reached my hand towards the water, drawn to the rushing falls’ clearness and coolness in the midday sun.
The moment I felt the icy cold water touch my fingertips at cascade falls, my mood began to change.
Before that, all the advice and thoughtfulness of my husband, my hiking companion, hadn’t shifted my dark mood. “Come on, make the best of it—you’re in a gorgeous place,” he said, and it made no difference. Our kids were at camp and it was a rare chance to take a hike solo. But all the views of the mountain, the trees, Lake Tahoe, and its crystal water hadn’t broken me out of my negative thought pattern. All the footsteps that led me to these rushing falls hadn’t done it either.
It wasn’t that I had something serious to worry about that day—my terrible mood was a result of a range of petty problems and missed expectations that fed my anger with myself and other people.
But somehow the water, feeling it and being shocked by its frigid temperature, noticing just how clear it was, hearing it wash the rocks, changed me. I realized afterwards that this was an example of something I need to do much more often: Using mindful awareness of my (tactile) senses in the moment to break out of a difficult, negative emotion.
I know I have a tendency to focus on the negative. Actually, on some level, we all do: it’s how primitive humans survived in a dangerous world, by spotting threats and avoiding them. It’s just that today, we perceive so many things as threats, from other drivers (who legitimately are potential killers) to unexpected expenses to disapproval by our family members or our bosses. But my thoughts about our less-than-perfect world often spiral out of control far too quickly. I am trying to understand that, and develop resilience for myself and also for my kids. To be there for them more fully, and to model for them how to handle tough feelings.
Often I talk to my daughters about the importance of calming themselves when they get upset. While deep breathing can often work, some methods are more senses-based and tactile. I recommended that my angry daughter punch a pillow. A counselor I know suggested other things: Try a blowing game where you move a balled tissue across the table with your breath. She also mentioned finger painting, which I now realize was a brilliant idea. Using your hands in thick paint and feeling its texture could activate touch and the awareness of the moment just as the cold water did.
In fact, kids tend to do a lot of things that use their bodies and senses to take them out of their minds this way: jumping in big puddles, turning their faces up to the rain, hitting things with sticks, bouncing into piles of fallen leaves. These are the kinds of exploits that we’re often warning them against—I can hear myself saying, “you’ll get dirty, you’ll be all wet, you’ll catch a chill, you’ll hurt yourself.” But maybe they instinctively know that not only is it fun, but it’s a way of feeling the moment and experiencing life outside the confines of our regular thought patterns.
I learned from that moment at the falls. Using our senses is not merely a way to distract or cover up our feelings. It’s a way to break free by refocusing the body and the mind. No one had to lecture me to change the way I felt, no harsh voice inside me had to tell me to “suck it up.” I shifted from within.
I was still angry when I reached into that water, but it washed the feeling out of me. I noticed my hands, my sense of touch and temperature, and my own body in a way I hadn’t before. And I was able to stop ruminating over negative thoughts, even for a short time--enough time to take in the beauty and fullness all around me.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.