The labrador and the mandala

Other people’s words about … mindfulness and meditation

I am not a fan of ‘mindfulness’. I have tried. I have really, really tried. I was first taught it in a hut in Cambodia, by a smiley, wizened old monk. The main thing I remember, as I sat cross-legged on a very hard cushion, was trying not to think about the pain in my hips. Then there was the chi gong instructor on the holistic holiday in Skyros. Then there was the hairy American at the Thai spa I thought might be a cult. By then I was used to searching for my ‘inner smile’, but I drew the line at laughing on demand while flexing the muscles of my pelvic floor.

From ‘The Art of Not Falling Apart’
by Christina Patterson

As I’ve mentioned before, I go back and forth on the topic of meditation. These days, I feel both less caustic and less flippant about it than Christina Patterson describes feeling in the passage above, but still, overall, ambivalent.

But I do respect the practice of being present, which is, I believe, the essence of the Western interpretation of mindfulness. I see the value in being able to sit with your thoughts and feelings, being able to observe those thoughts and feelings and then let them pass. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that wellbeing, at least for me, isn’t about happiness, or clarity, or contentment. It’s about co-existing: with the good, the bad, the ugly. It’s about living despite these things. Living anyway.

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how my feelings had changed, over the years, with regards to writing a journal. At the time I wrote that post, I couldn’t seem to overcome the disgust I had come to feel at the thought of returning to writing in my journal regularly, as I had when I was younger. I felt unable to bear the repetitiveness of my thoughts, spelled out on paper. I understood that journal writing had at one point served a purpose for me — the purpose of venting, and also, sometimes, of clarifying my thoughts — but that it no longer served that purpose. Or rather, that that purpose no longer served me.

This year, I contemplated trying yet again to return to a daily meditation practice. But instead, at the last moment, I decided to take the principles of meditation — that is, bearing witness to my thoughts and feelings and then letting them go — and to apply them to writing in my journal. At the time, I wasn’t sure why this decision, which felt so spontaneous, also felt so right; but I see now, a couple of months down the track, why it did. Writing in my journal each day, I’m starting to see how my thoughts and feelings and mood ebb and flow. It’s not all about despair, after all. Sometimes I write with sadness; sometimes I write with joy. Sometimes I write with boredom. Sometimes I write about myself and my inner world; sometimes I write about the things I’ve seen as I’ve gone about my day — that is, my external world.

And what I write about doesn’t puzzle me or bother me anymore. Writing so frequently, so — sometimes — inanely, I’ve learnt not to impose judgement on anything I write. I just write it, and let it go. That, to me, is, as I’d hoped, exactly what meditating is about (just without all the candles and mantras and breathing exercises).

But there are other things I like about writing (almost) daily in my journal, too, things I hadn’t anticipated. One is, I feel as though I’m not losing my life anymore. In years to come, I’ll be able to look back at these pages, as I look back now at the pages that I wrote in my twenties, and remember the woman I was. I’ll be able to remember the life I lived, the things that happened, the people I loved and lost. To me, that feels like a good thing. I’ve always wanted to live a life rich with memories, even if those memories are incredibly trivial and insignificant. Writing in my journal again is making that possible.

And finally, it’s a writing practice, too. The more I write, whatever kind of writing that is — journal writing, or blog writing, or fiction writing, or essay writing — the more I learn how to say what I want to say, and what it is, exactly, that I want to say. Journal writing, random and undisciplined as it is, is part of that process.

In the end, if nothing else, it’s another way to learn.

My 12-year-old labrador is clearly a Buddhist in training

Lately I’ve been reading about …

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve been reading online lately:

Time and tide

Other people’s words about … sea pools

Where the rock sloped into the water, it created a deep green pool. On a good day, when there was enough cloud so that there was no reflection and no wind to rumple the skin of the water, you could see all the way to the sandy bottom. Arrowed fish in triangles darted across the pool, and swathes of kelp swayed in and out with the current.

From ‘Skylarking
by Kate Mildenhall

The last time we camped at Yorke Peninsula, we spent a couple of days camped on the top of a cliff overlooking a headland that reached out into a sheltered bay. In the evenings, as the sun lowered, I would go to sit right on the edge of that cliff, my legs crossed beneath me, ankles beneath my knees, knees resting on the sand. While I sat there, I watched the sea wash over the shore down below and then recede, over and over again. Each time the tide rolled in, the fronds of seaweed beneath the surface waved in one direction; each time the tide dropped back, the fronds of seaweed swirled and waved back in the other direction, just as Kate Mildenhall describes it in the passage above.

I’ve always loved the sea: always loved to look at it and admire it. But I’d never watched the dance of seaweed beneath the water like that before. It felt like a form of meditation, almost, the kind of meditation I could consider taking up regularly, the kind of meditation I would miss when we left.

I do miss that meditation. And I miss the view …

Tangled

Other people’s words about … writing a journal

She put the card carefully on her knee under the journal, which she opened at the middle to a sprawl of furious and barely legible writing. There were circles and boxes and in some places the pen had been pressed so hard against the paper that it had torn. Clare snapped the journal shut and for the second time in as many days she put her head in her hands and cried.

There wasn’t, she thought, a single page in all the [boxes of journals] that was worth keeping. For twenty-seven years she had written the same things over and over.

from ‘Closing Down’
by Sally Abbott

Like the character Clare in the passage above, I was an avid journal writer for many years — from the age of about twelve years old, in fact. I began writing a journal because my Year 7 English teacher made the activity a part of our curriculum for the year: she gave us ten minutes at the beginning of each class to write in our journals. She saw journal writing as a way of encouraging us to learn to write fluently, spell correctly, express ourselves clearly and perhaps — as a corollary of the writing — to read widely.

Like Clare, I still have all my old journals, stored away in a plastic crate in the house at Aldinga. Those old childhood ones are filled with pages of neat handwriting in blue fountain-pen ink, drawings, doodles, comic strips I cut out from the newspaper and pasted in, pictures from old magazines, stickers, and notes other people wrote to me (on the odd occasion when I allowed someone access to my journal). They are bright and colourful and their tone is, mostly, chatty and cheerful.

But the later journals, which were written during my move from childhood to adolescence through to early adulthood and beyond, are filled with more handwriting and less colour. The writing takes over. It fills the pages. There is page after page after page of it.

It was a grief counsellor who had recommended Clare start keeping a journal … It was a way of beginning to articulate her feelings, the woman had explained, and Clare remembered her sad, earnest face and the huge weight she gave to the word ‘feelings’, as if they were something Clare could take out of herself and put on a table and carefully untangle and separate and tidy up. And perhaps, for a little while, it had helped. But what had she been thinking … to write over and over and over that she was sad or angry or okay? I only wrote what I felt, she thought. I never wrote what I saw. I never wrote what I did. I never wrote that I’ve made it this far.

In my early adulthood, like Clare, I was encouraged by various health professionals to continue keeping a journal as a part of my therapy; indeed, I was told I could see journal writing as a kind of therapy in itself.

And it was, I guess. For many years, it was.

Or at least I thought it was. I only wrote what I felt, Abbott’s character Clare realises in the passage above (my emphasis): I never wrote what I saw. These are wise words. There came a time, in my own journal writing, when I looked back over all those handwritten pages and was dismayed to see that what I had thought of as a process of therapy and healing was more like a process of emotional purging, repeated over and over and over again.

Reading (or rather, trying to read) those passages felt oppressive, overwhelming. Why did I always have the same feelings? Why did I always write about those feelings? Why didn’t writing change the feelings? Why couldn’t I find a cure?

I’ve talked before about my scepticism when it comes to dubious concepts like recovery and healing and cure. That’s part of my theme today (again), but what interests me more here is the way Abbott, using the character Clare, focuses on another dubious concept: the huge weight we place these days on our feelings, and therefore on our need to untangle them and tidy them up.

Meditators often talk about the practice of watching their thoughts and feelings arise and then letting them pass by without becoming ‘attached’ to them. Though, intellectually, I’ve understood the reasoning behind this for years, it wasn’t until I saw it expressed through Clare’s character that I actually got it.

Feelings are repetitive, yes: I hadn’t been wrong about that, in re-reading my journals. What I had been wrong about was letting this bother me. And measuring myself by it.

I never wrote that I’ve made it this far. Here, Clare realises that feelings, as measuring-tools of ourselves and of our worth, will always fail. They do not mark where we are in our lives. They do not necessarily affect what we see, what we do, where we go. (Or they don’t have to, anyway.) In this sense they are, ultimately, irrelevant. Our feelings accompany us on our passage through life, but they don’t determine the actual passage itself.

And they don’t have to be cured.

Interestingly, given the recurrent out & about theme of some of my posts on this blog, the character Clare in Abbott’s book is a great walker. She walks at night when she can’t sleep: she walks, and walks, and walks. And, in contrast to when she’s writing her journal, when she walks, she sees. When she sees, she learns. Her feelings, as she walks, are a backdrop. They are not the main event.

As for me? I took the pictures in today’s post on one of my recent walks through the Scrub, a day in late October when the Scrub was filled with flowers that were purple and blue and pink and white. I was feeling fairly gloomy at the time of that walk — unwell; stressed about being unwell; stressed about my jobs; stressed about feeling stressed about all of these things — but the pictures don’t convey that stress.

And that is as it should be. The feelings were a backdrop to the walk. What I saw was real and lasting. That’s what matters.

This moment, now

Other people’s words about … the everyday

The sunlit room is silent and there rises a kind of aural transparency through which a deeper background of sound emerges, intricately embroidered like an ocean bed seen through clear water: the sound of passing cars outside, of dogs barking and the distant keening of gulls, of fragments of conversation from the pavements below and music playing somewhere, of phones ringing, pots and pans clattering in a faraway restaurant kitchen, babies crying, workmen faintly hammering, of footsteps, of people breathing, and beneath it all a kind of pulse, the very heartbeat and hydraulics of the day.

From ‘Aftermath’
by Rachel Cusk

I’ve been saving this quote for a while. My copy of Aftermath came from the library, and so I can’t look the quote up again and remind myself of the context; but from memory, Cusk, who was at the time living and working in the British seaside town of Brighton, is in this passage writing of a visit to the dentist.

It’s easy to focus our attention on the beautiful things we see and hear around us. (I do it in my posts on this blog all the time.) But I love the way that Cusk does the opposite here: she takes an everyday moment — not a remarkable one, not even a particularly pleasant one — and describes it so vividly that the moment shines; it sings.

Sometimes, as I go about my own day — at moments when I am particularly busy, or grumpy, or stressed, or anxious — I make myself stop. I glance around; I tilt my head to one side to listen; I sniff the air. I make myself take everything in, just for that moment. It’s a way of stepping back, I suppose: of absorbing rather than participating. However unremarkable my surrounds at that moment, the act of stepping back from them and observing them creates a stillness inside of me.

That stillness is useful. It reminds me that I’m alive.

Look up from your work
every now and then.
Take a step back.

I suppose you could call this a form of anxiety management. I suppose you could say that I am teaching myself to be present, or trying to practise mindfulness. But I’m not consciously striving to do any of these things: the act feels more instinctive than that. It feels, simply, as though it is an important — no, an essential — thing to do, every now and then.

And that’s what Cusk does in this passage, I think: she grabs a very ordinary moment, she witnesses it and she breathes life (a heartbeat, a kind of pulse) into it.

And somehow, along the way, with the words she uses, she breathes magic into her day.

The big ‘I’

Other people’s words about … the view

Sit. Quietly. Turn your awareness to your heart space.

Now imagine you’re sitting on a small wooden bench with yourself. Imagine you’re doing so in that space in the centre of your chest. There you are, sitting to your right, the little nattering humanoid that you are, berating yourself for eating too much at lunch and debating whether to hang the washing out or not. This little nattering self is your little ‘i’. You (the big ‘I’) can watch it all. Yep, there you are, sitting quietly, looking out at a view, over treetops down to an ocean. On your little bench. Together. You’re just hanging, nowhere to go, nothing to do. The two of you …

From ‘First, We Make the Beast Beautiful
by Sarah wilson

It was my friend and fellow blogger, Anne, who first alerted me to the appeal of benches — I mean, real benches, in real life. In her ‘Bench Series‘, she posts photos of benches that she’s snapped from all over the world. I’d never really looked at benches before, except as convenient things to sit on while I rested and took a moment to enjoy the view before me. Now I find myself noticing them (and photographing them) all the time.

The kind of bench Sarah Wilson describes in the passage I’ve quoted above, though, is a metaphorical bench, one that you can only find within yourself. It’s a place where you can sit while you encounter, and learn to accommodate, your two selves: the busy, superficial, language-oriented self that churns out thoughts night and day, and the deeper, quieter, wordless self that lies beneath all the nagging chatter.

The idea of the two selves isn’t unique to Wilson. It’s an idea common to many systems of thought, one we’ve all become more familiar with since the recent popularisation of mindfulness-based practices and therapies. But I particularly like the way she uses the image of sitting on a bench to explain it. It’s a simple, vivid, accessible reminder of how easy it is to get caught up in (and believe) your own thoughts. 

A thought, after all, is only that: a thought. It may be true; it may not. Thoughts and the truth exist independently of each other. When I first came across this idea (here), it seemed both counterintuitive and revolutionary to me. I’m still grappling with it.

Wilson again:

And then it might occur to you that your little mate ‘i’ is just that — a little mate sitting next to you. And that this Big ‘I’ is who you really are. It feels deep and close and yet so vast.

Okay, I’ll admit I winced, at first, when I read these words. First, I’m not sure that the quieter self (the one Wilson calls the Big ‘I’) is deep or close or vast — or, indeed, in any way somehow ‘better’ than any other part of our self. I think that it just is.

Second, I was troubled by her use of the phrase little mate both to describe the thinking self, and to distinguish that self from the non-thinking self. I found the phrase overly colloquial, like some kind of condescending attempt to make a difficult concept more user-friendly to her less educated readers. But I have slowly come to feel the opposite way about her wording. The word mate implies friendship: it implies love, acceptance, forgiveness. Also fun. That’s helpful, I think. Why vilify a part of yourself, when you can instead smile and make friends with it?

Wilson uses meditation to find her bench. As you know, I don’t. But I don’t think that matters. What matters is that you know the bench exists — and that you know how to find it, however you get there.

And whether or not your prefer your benches real (like the ones in the photographs I took for today’s post, both of which are to be found in Aldinga Scrub) or whether you prefer them metaphorical, I wish you many sun-dappled, peaceful benches of your own in your life, wherever you happen to be.

In the middle of ordinary life

Other people’s words about … meditation

While I was [at Maharishi’s meditation course in the Alps] I managed to meditate for up to four hours a day, but back home it all seemed difficult again. And then, gradually, as I listened to the lectures it dawned on me that meditation was for recluses or people inclined that way. Prolonged practice could only result in a detachment from life that, although it might be better, I didn’t want. I didn’t want to become indifferent to anything, and as I watched those closest to Maharishi it seemed to me that they had this desire, gift, need — however you want to put it. I wanted to be in the middle of ordinary life trying to make the best of it even if — I could see more clearly now — it entailed my making the same mistakes many times. I didn’t want to give my life to anyone, I wanted to have it and use it and be an ordinary householder. So gradually I stopped. I think of Maharishi with great respect and affection, and I am sure that there is a spiritual hierarchy in which I am merely on the lower rungs. That was it.

from ‘Slipstream
by Elizabeth Jane Howard

I’ve written before about how I tried meditation recently (again), before deciding, finally, that it didn’t work for me. I don’t want to bore you by repeating myself endlessly on this blog; please feel free to read my older posts about the topic if you’re interested. (You can find them, for example, here and here). Most particularly, what has worked for me, post-meditation, has been learning to spend my days looking outward rather than inward (about which, more here and, in a funny way, here.)

I do particularly like Elizabeth Jane Howard’s spin on the theme, though. That’s why I’m revisiting it today. Perhaps, when she wrote the words above, meditation wasn’t considered to be the cure-all that it often is now; perhaps, for that reason, her words were less transgressive than they seem to me as I read them today. Still, I find her words wise and humble and filled with gratitude. Ironic, isn’t it? Those three things — wisdom, humility, gratitude — are all things we are often told we may develop through practising meditation.

Tea for one —
an ordinary pleasure,
all the more worth treasuring for its ordinariness

Like Howard, the older I get, the more I realise how attached I am to life — and how much I want to stay attached. My days are filled with petty, mucky angst, and I like them that way. Yes, I have bad days — days when my head aches, and my stomach churns, and my throat crawls with a hot kind of sickness and I can’t figure out why; days when my thoughts seem fevered and panicked and tumbling and disconnected; days when it takes all my effort to get dressed for work, and go in, and sit at my desk, and stay seated there, and stay still, oh, just stay still.

Still, even as I wait the bad days out, not knowing how else to get through them, I find myself wanting, in my strange, fierce way, to hold onto them. Because, like Howard, I want to be in the middle of ordinary life trying to make the best of it.

It’s about honouring life, really, isn’t it? That’s what I want to strive for. That’s all. That’s really all.

When the wall comes down

Other people’s words about … the view

When I was about fourteen or so, I studied a poem in school by David Campbell, called ‘On the Birth of a Son‘. It was a sonnet, and I didn’t know much about sonnets, except that Shakespeare wrote a lot of them. It never occurred to me that a contemporary poet might write one.

This sonnet by David Campbell has stayed in my mind ever since. It remains one of my favourite poems. Here it is, in its entirety:

The day the boy was born, the wall fell down
That flanks our garden. There’s an espaliered pear,
And then the wall I laboured with such care,
Such sweat and foresight, locking stone with stone,
To build. Well, it’s just a wall, but it’s my own,
I built it. Sitting in a garden chair
With flowers against the wall, it’s good to stare
Inwards. But now some freak of wind has blown
and tumbled it across the lawn — a sign
Perhaps. Indeed, when first I saw the boy,
I thought, he’s humble now, but wait a few
Years and we’ll see! — out following a line
Not of our choice at all. And then with joy
I looked beyond the stones and saw the view.

On the face of it, this poem is about becoming a parent — the fears new parents have; the limitations parenthood imposes on their lives; the unexpected, unsettling joys it rewards them with. So it might seem strange that Campbell’s words have always resonated with me, though I have chosen, deliberately, never to become a parent.

But that’s the thing about great poems: they are universal. They manage to strike a chord in different people at different times for different reasons.

For myself, every time I read this poem I am moved by the contrast the poet makes between the act of looking inward — at his safe, pretty, cosy life — and the act of looking up, out, to glimpse a view of the world, and his life, beyond.

The view beyond. Recently, I went on a camping trip to Yorke Peninsula with my partner. We returned to the same spot we always return to, driving down a long, undulating, unpaved road to get there — one that is corrugated and dotted with puddle-holes, dusty with sand stirred up by other passing vehicles, and lined with dense thickets of bush where brown snakes lie coiled, sleeping.

Each day we passed our time the way we always pass our time there. Each day we woke to the same view.

But it is a spectacular view: of open skies, of wide seas, of sprawling cliffs and rolling sand dunes. It is a view of a life beyond the life we normally lead. It is a view that sets me free.

I live a small life: small things give me pleasure. I consider myself, mostly, lucky to be able to live this way. And yet it’s good to escape from time to time: to look up and out and beyond.

And to see, again, the beautiful view.

Notes

  1. You can find a link to this poem here and here.
  2. All the photos in this post were taken at our campsite in Yorke Peninsula in February this year.