Mercury Arising – Mindfulness and the Non-Digital Thermometer
May 12, 2015
The concept seems quaint now, like the days when we used rotary phones and airmail. When the term “digital” described a clock whose numbers glowed green in the dark. A thermometer made of glass and mercury; a primitive instrument, sort of like using a sundial to tell time.
As a child there were a couple of broken thermometers, an alchemical mess. A collage of jagged edges and unleashed mercury, scooting quicksilver around the tiled bathroom floor into corners and grout, scattering shiny lines and squiggles everywhere. I watched, my mother firm that microscopic glass shards could find me, and no touching the mercury, no matter what.
Which brings me to my ill-fated check-up at the pediatrician’s. Another slippery thermometer, but, this time, my distracted doctor waving me on to play with its contents, as much dismissing me as he was schooling my mother in wider parameters of parental intervention. I spent a few happy minutes pushing silver shapes this way and that, morphing one blot of mercury into two, then four, then sixteen and so on. Until he tore the white paper off the exam table to signal that our time was up just as the novelty wore off, which it did – literally - shortly after we left his office.
An early jewelry fan, I was wearing my two little gold rings – one set with my birthstone and the other my zodiac sign. By the time we got home both rings had fallen off, the thin gold bands suddenly broken, missing, as if they had been partially eaten. They hadn’t snapped so much as they had disappeared, leaving behind the peridot and the Virgo, though just barely.
My mother grimly calculated that this was connected to the mercury and managed to stop the erosion, although I don’t remember how. She rushed the rings to a jewelry store, her quick action saving tears as well as the rings, but not without registering that if I’d left the mercury alone in the first place none of this would have happened.
I recently found myself thinking about this incident when I was meditating. When people find out that I teach meditation and mindfulness they immediately assume that I’m a master at it. Not that I would be caught up in the memory of a childhood incident from forty years ago, let alone the cascade of rambling thoughts, feelings and sensations that torpedo most meditators. They perceive that I am serene and unshakable, free from the inequities of suffering, calmly folding all of life’s events into a resting place of even, humming satisfaction.
Of course, this is not so. My mind wanders plenty, both on the cushion and off. In fact, my mind wanders, conjures, doubts, hopes, anticipates, regrets, fears and time-travels with regularity, and at a breakneck pace. That’s why I practice meditation and mindfulness. Observing the mind without getting caught up in it provides a buffer between reaction and response. Anchoring the attention to the here and now, recognizing thoughts as thoughts, feelings as feelings and sensations as sensations is a vantage point that lends perspective and peace.
When I remembered the rings, I was struck by the similarities between mercury and mind. Both are conduits, conductors of energy and outcome. The mercury inside the thermometer functioned for good by determining the degree of sickness or health in the body. But once the mercury was turned loose, it became corrosive, eroding away at whatever was in its path.
The human mind can function similarly, capable of so much, yet derailed so easily. It can get carried away with “what if’s,” worry, anxiety, delusion and rumination. The mind’s activity can be corrosive, hooking into a negative groove and eroding our confidence and self-esteem. Unleashed, both mercury and mind can become distorted, working against us in unintentional ways.
The practice of mindfulness helps harness our attention on the present, on what is true. We recognize that the slipstream of our thoughts does not define us. We cultivate concentration and focus, so that our lives don’t pass us by in a blur of distraction. Our heightened awareness can alert us to patterns of reactivity or beliefs that impede our growth and happiness. We may be mercurial beings, but mindfulness can offer us balance.