February 21, 2021

To watch a tree.

Why is it so fulfilling to watch a tree? A short existentialist inquiry.

To watch a tree.

Sometimes, I watch a tree. I look at its leaves. They usually dance slightly in the light breeze. A minute after I have been watching it, my mind starts to get bored. My popcorn brain1 demands input. The tree is not sufficiently buzzing with information.

Being someone who usually has three screens on, engaging with all three at the same time, while eating a meal and engaging my thoughts in other things which have nothing to do with any of the several activities I have in front of me, I end up forcing myself to watch the tree. Why? Because this image of myself comes into my mind’s eye. I see myself engaging in too many things. My attention is so dispersed that in truth I do nothing, while expending the mental effort of doing everything. In the end, I am mentally exhausted, unable to focus deeply on any issue, and I have nothing to show for it. So I strain my mind to watch this tree. “I will sit here. I will feel the boredom. And I will persevere.” I think to myself. As I think this, the image seen by my mind’s eye takes my attention away from the tree. I swiftly throw away that image in order to focus on the tree.2 I strain myself to focus on the tree. As I do, the distractions grow in number and my attention weakens. Microseconds of losing focus happen like little drops of attention-stealing rain falling on my mind.

After about ten minutes, I find myself unable to continue focusing on the tree. I almost reflexively look to my phone. However, sometimes, I do not pick it up. Instead I just gaze at something else, and let my mind wander.

That wandering feels like a victory. And that is why it is so fulfilling to watch a tree.


1 A brain so used to constant stimulus that the threshold for feeling bored is very low. Even a short amount of time without stimulus, a minute or two, is enough to descend into boredom.

2 Perhaps throwing the image away is just the popcorn brain winning again. Perhaps I should not be so swift about it, but put the image away slowly.

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