Mindfulness in the Heart of Baltimore


Mid-day sunshine brings Baltimore to life.

Mid-day sunshine brings Baltimore to life.

I don’t know if you have ever read or seen Ambrose Bierce’s “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” but yesterday, walking mindfully through Baltimore on my way to a photo shoot for my new gig writing for our local paper, I had one of those “occurrences” in everything that I saw, heard, and felt.

If you aren’t familiar with Bierce’s short story, “Occurrence” is about a man who is hanged for treason during the Civil War. In the process of being hanged, though, the noose breaks, and he embarks on an all-senses-heightened run back home to his wife. (I have included the video at the end of this post. Really– it’s an Oscar-winning classic short film by filmmaker Robert Enrico).

No. I didn’t feel like I was being hanged. It was the other part — the all-senses-heightened experience that I was mindful of: brilliant colors brought to life by a descending sun, the intricate textures and architecture in the buildings, and the people– the people! I was blown away by the surprise on some people’s faces when I looked into their eyes and smiled as we passed by. There was life there, a sudden belief that they were acknowledged, even appreciated without judgment. The energy we shared in the simple exchange of smiles was exhilarating.

It was all available to me simply by walking mindfully as I went from the Light Rail train to the Baltimore Sun building on N. Calvert Street.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about awareness and staying in the present, with open appreciation and gratitude. I could have occupied my walk with plenty of worries and fears about meeting the individuals I am now working with at the paper. As well, I could have stressed the entire way about getting back in time to pick up my daughter before 5 p.m.

What if the photographer has a line of people waiting for head shots?
What if my editor is in a meeting and I have to wait?
What if the trains are running late?
What if…?

Nope. Waste of energy. Every single one of those thoughts. At that precise moment when I stepped off my train and started walking toward the Sun building, not one of those what-ifs was in my control. If I kept my focus on there, an hour in the future, I would have passed up the mindful walk that centered me and enriched my experience in Baltimore.

Walking mindfully is having an awareness of your surroundings  It is simpler than you might think.

Yesterday, in my walk through Baltimore, my mindfulness allowed me to experience, in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the city, “perfect sweetness [in] the independence of solitude,” as Emerson wrote in his essay, “Self Reliance.”

Mindfulness Is Available to All of Us

Creativity and beauty can be found throughout Baltimore; all we need to do is be mindful to see it!

Creativity and beauty can be found throughout Baltimore; all we need to do is be mindful to see it!

Mindfulness has been around for centuries, and it continues to be practiced everywhere — in the workplace and in the schools. According to Cara Moulds, an energy-shifting, confidence-building possibilitarian, it is anything but a fad.

If you simply look at the many examples of how mindfulness is already being incorporated into business and education, you can see that this is much more than a trend. And also, consider the scientific research being released to show the benefits both in employee productivity and student test scores, not to mention well-being and compassion toward others.

Still, many people align being mindful with some deep religious sect or cult. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is a very simple tool to help us live more creatively and fully, every day of our lives.

Meghan Vivo does a wonderful job debunking the myths of mindfulness in her article, “8 Misconceptions About Mindfulness.”

Mindfulness is a quality and a tool – a very powerful one. It won’t, by itself, bring eternal bliss or answer all of life’s questions, but it can bring a sense of connectedness and peace to the practitioner, which can translate into fewer self-defeating behaviors. . . . It also helps cultivate other qualities, such as wisdom and compassion, that lead ultimately to greater satisfaction, even in difficult circumstances.

We don’t have to join some kind of group or live our lives any differently; the difference is that we need to understand that the powers of mindfulness are within us, right now. Once we understand that, everything suddenly becomes possible in our lives, even when taking a simple walk in Baltimore City.

Here’s the short film, “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” by Robert Enrico:


About Rus VanWestervelt: I am a pretty mindful guy who teaches writing, creativity, and — yes — even mindfulness. My eCourses have received great praise over the years, and I would love to work with you. Shoot me an email (rusvw13@gmail.com) or find me on Twitter (@rusvw) or Facebook (facebook.com/RusVanWesterveltWriter). My fall classes will begin mid-August. I am looking forward to working with you!

The Sweetness of Solitude

What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and in intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have struggled, lately, to follow Emerson’s advice. I guess I let the world around me — especially the social media world — derail my focus that keeps me centered in solitude while immersed in the big crowd. I had to leave that crowd for a week to regroup, gather some strength, and resurface.

I don’t see anything wrong with that. I think we need to take a walkabout every now and then to find that focus again. It’s easy to be so derailed in the mind-blowing speed of the world that now whips around us.

I am blessed to have a friend who never ceases to provide a balanced dose of wisdom when I need it the most. Last week, as we were doing a ten-mile bike ride on the NCR Trail in northern Baltimore County, I was explaining to Trina why I deactivated my Facebook account.

“I needed to find that balance, Trina. I needed to get back to that core, that center and refocus.”

She didn’t respond immediately, but when she finally spoke, her words nearly made me steer completely off the trail and into the muddy trenches.

“Finding balance is not always a 50-50 thing. You just have to find the right percentages of the different things in your life that create that balance within you.”

Such simple advice, yet so very profound.

I don’t need to remove parts of my life that are causing me stress or concern; I need to evaluate how much I have allowed those things to permeate my every move. Social media is a perfect example. I realized, just in one week, how important my friends are to me online, and how essential those connections are for the work I am doing with Lines of Love, the fight against bullying, and the promotion of peace and living life fully.

Despite my efforts — even in one week — to do that without social media seemed like the worst exercise in futility I could ever attempt.

And so I am back, with my tail tucked a little between my legs, for being so dramatic with my parting. But at that time, I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t find that anchor to pull me out of that frustration, so I gave up and gave in.

This message to me is much bigger than social media, too. I am overwhelmed by the travesties and tragedies on our planet, taking place every single day. Yet, I choose to stay in the game, fighting back with love and faith. I must do the same thing online — have the same understanding that, in the not-so-little world of online social networking, the same travesties and tragedies are happening.

By giving in, by giving up, I am giving them the satisfaction (indirectly so) that they got to me. They pushed me away. And in that, they gained some strength.

I won’t give them that satisfaction. And I hope you won’t either. We cannot run from the hardest challenges we face; we must greet them and defeat them with the same loving kindness that nurtured us when we were newborns.

We must keep with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude as we live in this world, real or virtual (are they even that different anymore?).

And to do that, we need to be together, we need to unite, we need to run into — and not away from — the challenges we face.

All this, and with a happy heart to embrace life fully and with peace toward ourselves as well as toward others.