Here is an article I wrote on Robert Burns and one of his most famous poems, To A Mouse. It was originally published in the Sunday Herald three years ago. As a late contribution to Burns' Night, I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.
A Mindful View of To a Mouse
Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie,
O, what a panic's in thy breastie!
On Burns’ Night we hear the standard views of Robert Burns as a great humanist, a womaniser, and most of all, a great poet. But there’s a couple of aspects of Burns’ nature that I don’t think have been explored in depth, aspects that relate to a wider compassion and an instinct understanding of the benefits of being mindful.
Being mindful is noticing what’s actually going on in the present moment so that we can enjoy our moments more in real time. This can be external things: what we see, hear, touch, smell and taste, but also the inner stuff: our thoughts, impulses, gut reactions, moods, and emotions. A body of high level scientific study is increasingly showing that if we sharpen our mindfulness in everyday life we become clearer in our thinking, feel much calmer, are more resilient under pressure, and show more compassion towards others. It rekindles a joy of life, something many of us have lost in the throes of our everyday modern frantic world.
Poetry is often described as heightened awareness. Mindfulness develops this directly.
Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim'rous beastie.
Burns is recollecting the fear in a mouse. The poet had accidentally overturned the little shelter it had built to protect itself from winter’s chills.
This is a scene of utmost compassion. Let’s run through it in slow motion, mindfully, as if time has slowed down so you can notice more.
Burns sees the mouse.
He notices its scurrying and understands immediately what he has done.
Immediately in his heart he feels compassion for it.
These are three linked but distinct mental activities: seeing, understanding, feeling.
Notice that the compassion is automatic. Farmers are much closer to nature than we are. For some that constant awareness of the realities of nature can bring a coldness to the heart. Life comes and goes. But for others, like Burns, the poignancy and fragility of life enhances his innate compassion.
Your own mind works in the same way. You notice things with your senses. The brain processes what you experience in order to assess it. Then it may or may not produce an automatic response.
From a mindfulness perspective the automatic response is the problem. We are all programmed by a combination of genes, upbringing, culture, and the times we live in. We don’t get to choose these. This makes us much more of an automaton that we think we are. We think we’re intelligent, reasoning people, making decisions based on thoughtful assessments of situation. But scientific evidence shows otherwise. Most of our responses happen without our conscious input. As Einstein once put it, by the time we’re eighteen we’re a bundle of prejudices.
Some of these prejudices are good. Burns was programmed to be kind and thoughtful to creatures in trouble.
Mindfulness enables us to deprogramme what is unhealthy, and if we want, to programme new responses to life. Burns had close to a universal compassion. It’s a view that everything that lives and can feel pain and pleasure should be left unharmed where possible, and helped, nurtured and revered as part of this remarkable thing we call life.
I'm truly sorry Man's dominion
Has broken Nature's social union,
An' justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
Burns recognises the mouse’s equal right to life and security. The words “thy poor earth-born companion, an’ fellow mortal” are, to my mind, an exquisite pronouncement of universal love. And what Burns had inside him by chance we can consciously develop.
Simply being more mindful seems to enhance compassion because as we see and hear more clearly we notice others’ suffering, which often ignites fellow-feeling. But we can choose to go further. There’s a practice the Buddha developed which has been adapted to a secular form and it enhances our compassion.
When you have a quiet moment think of someone or something still alive that you love or like. See if you can gently stay with your feeling, allowing it to soak into you more deeply. Notice what this feels like and enjoy it. Then express a wish that the person or animal be happy and safe. See if you can feel your love and kindness towards them. Stay with it for a while then accept when the feeling fades. The practice is finished.
You can go further and see if you can bring a sense of compassion towards someone you know who is suffering right now in their life. Bring them to your mind. Bring awareness of their suffering condition, perhaps physical pain, exhaustion, fear or uncertainty. Try not to sink into suffering alongside the person, but rather nurture the wish to help the person. Then just sit with that wish to be kind and let it soak into you. Notice and enjoy it.
In this way, slowly but surely you can develop greater compassion, maybe in time to a poetic level. If you set aside a few minutes each day to do this practice you’ll be surprised at how quickly your sense of compassion and awareness grows.
Finally, remember to enjoy life in the moment. Burns expressed in the last lines of this beautiful poem the nub of the problem; our tendency to be distracted from the present to past pains and future fears.
Still, thou art blest, compar'd wi' me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e'e,
On prospects drear!
An' forward, tho' I canna see,
I guess an' fear!