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Wake up and smell the azaleas

In an effort at mindfulness this strange and unsettling year, I took to photographing little sprouts of joy wherever I could. In spring, this meant a lot of brilliantly coloured flowers filled the lens of my iphone, my Instagram feed and my perceptual field.

Using attention wisely and deliberately (which is what is meant by “being mindful”) is important, because your mind, much like a mirror, reflects what you pay attention to. What you pay attention to shapes who you are and how you are in the world.

Partaking in a practice of mindful awareness means you notice more than you might otherwise do. Paying attention is akin to being awake, rather than sleep walking through the world. It’s powerful stuff that unlocks the possibilities and richness that are inherent in our conscious minds.

Here is what I noticed about the flowers. There are tiny buds of glorious colours amidst the drab of winter; there are intricate patterns of unexpected delight on the leaves of pastel shaded succulents; there are flowers in such a vast array of shapes and sizes as to plunge the imagination into the world of Alice in Wonderland; and there is a specific colour of newness I’ve dubbed spring green. It’s the colour of regrowth on the tips of evergreen bushes and shrubs and trees.

All of this is there to be noticed, but what steals attention is the carnival of colour that herald’s springs arrival. Jacaranda trees in a haze of purple, an explosion of red roses, the strutting orange beaks of strelitzias.

In particular, the vivid pink bushes of Azaleas along my street were breathtaking in their confident vibrancy. Bushes all around the neighbourhood groaned beneath the weight of hundreds of piercingly bright blooms, bunched together like moshers at a pre-Covid rock concert, jostling with each other to face the sun.

What a joyful sight to behold as I walked my dog around the block. A mood boost I looked forward to everyday. You can imagine my distress at their sudden transformation into something akin to wet cardboard; a brown, soggy and shapeless mush plastered across the once lively bush.

In all my years of being alive I had never really noticed the cycle of spring. I knew, as we all do of course, that there are seasons, and things appear and disappear, but before this conscious act of mindful attention, I had never noted the death of flowers. And I was shocked by it, to be honest. I was sad at their passing. I grieved for them.

But it got me thinking about mortality and that desperate desire for eternal life, which powers so much suffering in this world. We get weighed down by an awareness of our mortality, us humans. As people we are prone to blindly cling to religious promises and tribal rituals as a way to feel that life has some greater purpose beyond mere existence. And that without some sort of supernaturally ordained purpose, life is meaningless. I suspect this has to do with the understandable desire to avoid contemplating one’s own passing.

But all life ends, including ours. It is the nature of the universe from which we are wrought. Even the hot-house nuclear fusion machines we call stars, which make all the elements necessary for life - are born, age and die. Our very own sun is at least a second-generation star, born new and fresh and different from the death collapse of a predecessor.

Like stars and flowers and cows and dinosaurs, we too live and die, and the atoms that made us are freed up to be part of new things. If we are lucky enough to have children, or siblings with children, then part of our genetic code, the blueprint of us that contains a history that stretches back to the birth of life itself, continues on. But we don’t.

We are a unique moment in time – a very specific arrangement of neurons. Who we think we are - our subjective sense of ourselves or the “I” view that is our conscious experience of the world – is created by our unique brains; themselves built by our genes and shaped by our environment.

We have this one moment in the sun to stretch out of mindlessness and connect with the world around us. We have the briefest of times to live fully and well, to wake up and look around and live with a meaningful purpose of our own making. And the fact that we die and fade forever into the annals of history does not lesson the meaning and value of our existence.

The death of the azaleas on my street reminded me starkly that even though life is short, perhaps even because it is brief, it is still wonderful. The flowers don’t lose their value because they die. And life is not meaningless because we do. The flowers brought joy and happiness to me, as I hope I do to others in my world. But it is because of the brevity of their life and the starkness of their death, that I am able to reflect on their value. It is because they died that I appreciate them so much and note their passing with sadness.

These are lessons we can apply to other living things. When we understand that certain and finite death awaits everyone, everywhere, I think it reminds us to appreciate where we are, what we have and who we share the world with. It reminds us to wake up and pay attention, while we can.

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