I recently took a tour of an old mansion in Canandaigua, NY called the Granger Homestead where the Grangers lived from 1816 to 1930. The mansion was pretty typical of other homes I’ve seen from that time period with high ceilings and interesting woodwork, but upstairs in the last bedroom of the tour was a picture of Helen Keller with the words delicately inscribed with now light brown ink “Dear Miss Granger, With all kind love and mindfulness, Helen Keller”. I stood looking at the picture with her impeccably written words transfixed by the intentionality in both her handwriting and greeting. I thought about what it would mean to greet each person with such a strong sense of love and attention. Helen Keller seemed to capture the mindfulness movement with its message of being in the present moment with kindness 70 years before it infiltrated main stream psychology.
Since that first visit to the Granger Homestead, I’ve become a little obsessed with Helen Keller, and what she has to teach us about mindfulness and rising above adversity.
I first wanted to know how often people even used the word “mindfulness” and whether such a greeting was common in the late 1800s. According to an incredibly fun tool called “Google Ngram” I found out that mindfulness is used today 44 TIMES the amount it was used in the 1890s. Thus I assumed that Helen Keller was tapping in to something particularly unique and visionary—though I’m certainly no historian.
After reading Dorothy Herrmann’s biography of Helen Keller I learned that she was close to many influential thinkers of the time, and I wondered if she had any connections to well-known psychologists. I was surprised to find out that she developed a friendship with the philosopher and psychologist William James who is arguably the first psychologist to promote ideas consistent with mindfulness in the West. She met James in the 1890s when she was 11 years old and they continued a correspondence until he died in 1910 (Taylor, 2015).
A thesis by David Jacobs Gordon reads
James claimed that subjective life is composed of that which we attend to; out of “the infinite chaos of movements,” each sense-organ picks out certain objects and ignores the rest as if they did not exist.
In a time when psychologists were advocating “objective” measures of psychological study, James pushed for a view that both valued the subjective experience and allowed one to step back as an observer and view the subjective experience with curiosity (Gordon, 2009). This valuing of the subjective self and the cultivation of an “observer” who has some distance from the subjective is very consistent with current mindfulness practices.
It’s clear that James and Keller shared their respective ideas about the world and he may have added to her rich understanding of mindfulness, however Keller on her own had a deep grasp of the power of our senses and the importance of attending to the moment.
Below I examine the different components of mindfulness and look to Keller for insight and wisdom.
Attending to the present moment: In Keller’s autobiography The World I live In, Keller writes about her ability to tell someone’s mood by the way their hand feels, know a storm is coming by quivers in her nose, and distinguish between different kinds of roses. She savored sensations and could be found hugging trees and enjoying the vibrations produced by the piano. Reading about the depth by which she experiences smell and touch left me wondering what information I miss all of the time by not attending as intensely to these senses.
Embracing an attitude of loving kindness: Mark Twain, another one of Keller’s dear friends, wrote “Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see”. Keller rarely wrote critically of others and often was highly empathic and understanding of why others might have good reasons to act out in different ways. This was particularly true for her teacher Annie Sullivan who was prone to fits of rage particularly after she married John Macy. Helen later wrote that she knew Annie had a very difficult past and sometimes felt overwhelmed because of it. Helen also shows a deep reverence for the power of love. “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us” (Helen Keller).
Cultivating an attitude of non-judgment: As Helen grew up she struggled with coming to terms with what it meant to be deaf and blind knowing that others could see and hear. She writes in The World I Live In “To the blind child the dark is kindly. . . Not until he weighs his life in the scale of others’ experience does he realize what it is to live forever in the dark.” Overtime, Helen learns to be accept her unique experience in the present moment without judgment. She writes, “Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content.”
Acting with intention: Helen Keller demonstrated tremendous intentionality in her actions fighting for women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, socialism, and the blind. She writes, “True happiness... is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.” She also had to be intentional in her day to day actions and bring a tremendous amount of focus to her tasks whether it was going for a walk by herself by holding on to a pre-strung rope or writing a book. She writes, “I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”