Carpe Diem with a Mini Morning Constitutional

carpe_diem_pluck_the_dayA couple of summers ago, during a somewhat hectic and often rainy camping trip with family and friends, I finally realized what I most like about sleeping outdoors.

It’s the early morning walk to the lavatory. Slipping out of the tent, breathing in the freshest of air, often with no one around. A quiet moment to take in the wonders of the outside world, clear my head of sleep and open it up to the possibilities of the day.

Back at home a few weeks later it occurred to me that I could partially replicate the experience in my own suburban neighborhood. Doing just that most mornings for the past year or so has been the most satisfying of my various Mindfulness exercises.

Of course older generations have been getting out for a walk, no matter the weather, usually the same route each time. It used to be called a “constitutional.” Good for body and soul, they said, and of course they were right.

But we over-burdened, over-busy 30, 40 and 50 somethings tell ourselves we don’t have the time our grandparents did. We’ve got coffee to brew, e-mails to check, phone calls to make, from the very earliest moments of the morning until late into the evening when our bodies can’t take any more. By nightfall, we have no energy for outside movement, only just enough to pour a glass of wine or three and sprawl out in front of the TV.

But I think most of us – with a bit of practice – can pull ourselves together first thing in the morning and walk for five minutes. It’s almost certainly deeply encoded in our genes. We all have inherited genes from people who were able to get going quickly – very quickly if needed – at the crack of dawn, at first rustling of a predator, or first opportunity of prey. Our ancestors collected water, hunted and gathered from dawn’s early light. Being out and about at 6 or 6:30 in the morning can be an exhilarating connection to our primal humanity.

Here are some tips I use to successful carry out an early morning “mini contemplative constitutional:”

  1. Do a little preparation the night before; lay out in a convenient spot what’s needed — shoes, an overcoat
  2. Who’s sleeping with or near you? They probably don’t want to get going as early as you do; plan to exit the sleeping area quietly
  3. I try to pretend I’ve just been sleeping in a tent (or ideally a Mongolian yurt!) with very few amenities
  4. So no splashing of water, no looking in the mirror. Yes, I use the toilet as needed because unfortunately there’s no outdoor latrine in my neighborhood
  5. I throw on a baseball hat with the logo of a major sports company. Two benefits: It hides my messy hair and reassures busy-body neighbors that I’m not a dangerous vagrant, i.e. I look like any other aspirational, fitness-oriented person
  6. Then I fight the temptation to do little procrastnatey things like open curtains, pick up the kids’ clothes, etc. The goal is to get out of the door as soon as possible after waking.
  7. Whatever you do, don’t look at your smartphone. It can be left by itself for another five minutes, trust me.
  8. Open the door and start walking. Almost invariably the first thought is “Wow, it’s nice to be outside,” no matter the weather.
  9. When it’s warm, I don’t wear shoes or socks. Naked feet. It’s the best. It helps me feel more grounded, literally. It slows me down so that I can take in more sights and sounds, and it strengthens my feet
  10. I take the same route every time so that I don’t have to make any decisions and so I can notice subtle changes from day to day, season to season. The route is: Cross the street, walk about 150 yards northward, cross the street again and return southward 150 yards. Back home in five minutes. That wasn’t so bad. No, usually it’s great!

We all have five minutes first thing in the morning. For some of us that means going to bed five minutes earlier than usual, and that, in turn, is accomplished by five minutes less TV or surfing the net.

What do I think about during these five minutes? Of course I try to think about as little as possible. I try to imagine I’m living in the wild and am acutely sensitive to my environment. What does the sky look like; how much humidity is in the air. I observe minute details on my neighbors’ houses (“they left out their garden hose”), I try to identify car brands from as far a distance as possible as if they were birds of prey (“that’s a Toyota”). I count squirrels. I notice insects.

Rather than “seize the day,” Latin scholars say that “carpe diem” is better translated as “pluck the day.” Pluck, as in what you might do with a wild flower. Not seize as in grab something by the neck, shake it and wrestle it to the ground. Accordingly, each day is there to be plucked, resting gently in your palm. A plucked day to be admired, offered to us in all its potential beauty.