I have an odd habit of counting everything that I do. Perhaps it originates in my lifelong habit of exercise, in which I count repetitions of lifts, squats, and crunches. I count how many stairs I go up, or the steps between my office and a co-worker’s office. I count how many weeds I pull when I’m gardening, and how many times I knead the bread dough. I make to-do lists and count how many tasks I have accomplished in a day. When I’m driving somewhere long distance I count the miles driven, and grow more concentrated on the task of counting the closer I get to the destination. I count weeks in a season, the days of the week, the weeks in a month.
If there is a philosophical foundation to my focus on the seasons as a subject of study, and indeed as a way of life, it is the idea of mindfulness: learning to be present in the moment you’re living, engaged with the people and events here and now, and not focused on imagined futures or tormented pasts. I guess it’s obvious that obsessively counting everything militates against that. It puts an artificial layer over everything.
If I’m walking in a park on a sunny spring day, I should be aware of things around me—the breeze, birdsong, voices of children, splashes of geese as they land in the lake—and not on the 572nd step I’ve taken. 573rd. 574th. It’s all a matter of calming one’s mind to be present in the moment. And while I believe I often calm much of my worry about work, or family, or money, or whatever, I substitute for those things this incessant counting.
I practice yoga usually 5 or 6 days a week. One of the goals of yoga is to calm one’s mind and concentrate on perfect stillness, to listen only to one’s breathing. For this reason many students of the discipline adopt a mantra, some calming word to repeat in the mind to still all other thoughts. It never works for me. I find myself counting the breaths I take while holding each pose. The counting seems to drive out many other thoughts, so maybe that’s good; but the counting itself is a problem.
Humans are obsessed with counting, and the counting of time in the year is the most glaring example of it. We have never been comfortable admitting that counting is our thing, our obsession. We want to believe that the universe is orderly in a perfect, countable way, that our various deities created it just so. We were long loath to admit that it wasn’t really that orderly. We counted by the moon, which was always a mess. Lunar-based religious calendars still in use have holidays happening all over the year. Once we settled on the solar year, or the tropical year, things settled down, but not completely. There is the problem of leap year, making up for the fact that we have laid the year out in a number of days, and once we have counted 365 of them, the universe still has ¼ day hanging there.
When it’s hot we count how many days of summer are left, as if once we pass September 21 someone will flip a switch, the temperature will cool, the leaves will turn, and we can get our sweaters out. In reality these are gradual changes, everything happening on an innumerable continuum. But we don’t stop. What is supposed to by cyclical we try to make linear; what is ineffable we try to tally.
I wish I could stop counting things all the time; but I don’t think the problem is mine alone. I think we all need to think about what purpose our constant enumeration of things serves. And now I will publish this little essay to WordPress, and start counting how many people read it . . .