A Year of Living Mindfully: A Zen teacher in my own back garden


I live in Dublin’s city centre beside a clearing where a clutch of old trees and overgrown bushes have merged into a small city forest.

Hidden in this rarely disturbed thicket there lives a family of foxes.

I have never seen their den, but I have heard their cries and frequently in the late evening or early morning, I have seen a vixen with her long ginger bushy tail strolling through my garden.

About a year ago, I started to leave out scraps of food for my visitor. And then a funny thing happened, early one Saturday morning in June.

She appeared at the end of my garden with two cubs. She sat there in broad daylight for almost an hour, while her cubs ran in and out of the bushes and rolled in the grass.

Her boldness in revealing herself so openly struck me as unusual. It was like she was announcing that she now had two extra mouths to feed. As if somehow I could be relied on to come up with additional provisions.

Completely rapt
Ever since that rare appearance, I’ve been leaving out food as darkness falls. I sit in my favourite chair with the back door open, hidden in plain sight. I am as still as a pond under a moonlit sky.

My ears scan the soundscape to hear the rustle of leaves underfoot that announce her arrival. My eyes focus intensely on the fading grey contours at the bottom of the garden.

I’m anxious to catch the first sight of her furtive movements as she emerges into view. My attention is completely rapt. I lose track of time, sometimes for over an hour.

If there is too much light or movement anywhere in the house, she disappears and waits in the shadows.

When the night has quieted down she ventures out into the open garden. She may pick up the food I’ve left for her and hop back over the wall or she circles her loot many times before taking it into the bushes. I sit there listening to the sound of her eating.

Night classes
Feeding her and observing her has turned into a series of night classes where she has taught me the art of stillness. Forgoing TV, reading and any number of distractions, I have been lured by her into silence.

In my eagerness to catch each moment of her presence, I have – without realising it – been honing my concentration skills. I have anchored myself in the chair, not knowing exactly when she will appear, not wanting to miss the moment.

This morning, I was sitting cross-legged on my cushion with the back door open to let in the freshness of the morning. She appeared over the wall and took me by surprise. Her morning walks were not uncommon, but today she walked up the garden and stood looking in at me.

I remained completely still but I was aware of my heart thumping in my chest.

I could see by her twitchiness that she too was nervous. I sensed that if I blinked, she would be gone. Torn between curiosity and fear, she hovered.

Her conundrum reminded me of how we are all caught between our longing to get close and our terror of being hurt. She turned and walked slowly back down the garden. She paused to look back several times, perhaps checking that I wasn’t following.

Sitting upright and now fully awake, I realised that this fox was nothing short of a kindly Zen teacher. Being in her presence has helped me to be present – it’s pure mindfulness.

Tony is speaking this Thursday at 7pm in the Grand Hotel, Wicklow town, as part of The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthy Town initiative. His talk is titled “Kindness to Self – the most powerful anti-depressant”. Admission is free. To book a place, call Niamh O’Keeffe on tel: 01 6690299 or email niamh.okeeffe@

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