From a very small age I liked Henry Moore’s sculptures, and even now, I associate them with childhood. My grandparents would take me to the sculpture park to see them: long peaceful walks, with reverent pauses in the presence of these art-forms. Sculptures many times bigger than me stood beside well-worn paths, like fellow walkers, or lay out, beneath the clouds, in fields surrounded by sheep-nibbled grass. Others hid among trees, surprising the passer-by as they shimmered into view and others peered out over the lake, watching the swans paddle along. Sculptures of bronze shells or stone limbs reminding us of our own bodies, positioning us beside them, exuding and sharing strength with their size, a guardianship, a guide. Sculptures with smooth voluptuous surfaces telling us to touch, skin to skin.
Trees can also be like this, with broad roots bulging from the base, their bark peeling like flakes of paper, layer on layer, branches just out of reach, solid and unmoving, reassuringly still. Grown adults in a forest, when they’re not conscious of being watched, run their fingers along the rough bark. A fingertip trace, reading the world to find a connection.
Interestingly, the benefit of therapy stems not from the words spoken, but from the relationship, the carving out of a safe space, a human contact that is non-judgmental, where forgiveness is not required or solicited. If words sufficed, we could heal ourselves through reading a book. And books are wondrous things, but they are a vessel of human connection, a one to many, not a one to one. Sometimes it’s the being with each other that’s necessary. It’s the presence. Like a tree, the psychotherapist does not move, does not rush. Connection takes time, and time is given with patience.
Meditation is the crafting of stillness, a pause where thoughts are encouraged to flow without sticking, without getting caught, where the body is calmed, and balance is restored to the breath. Time passes, but time is allowed to pass. There is a flow, a curve, an evenness, a beauty in being. Within this pause, there is sometimes clarity, insight. Sit calm and you learn to appreciate your own company. Solitude separates ‘now’ from the haste. Why is haste so frequently harnessed to life? With the harness unclipped, our shoulders lift, we consider the spine and rest in the breath. Listening to our breath unites us with the truth of what we are feeling.
Connection is not complicated, but does have to be given to, it has to be trusted in, it has to be devoted to. But it’s also what makes being worthwhile.
It’s hard to listen. You risk hearing something that you don’t want to hear. Your view of things might get a little crumpled. Someone might say something that doesn’t align with what you wanted or expected them to say or think. People, it seems, have different opinions. Not everyone sees the world quite like me. Maybe nobody. It’s terribly frustrating.
Listening inevitably reminds us of the gap between us. Listen closely, and you’ll hear how clunky our words actually are. We try to express ourselves but our ten of thousands of words create an insufficient digital approximation of our analogue experience. Body language steps in to compensate. Facial expressions give texture to our meanings. But our noisy biases result in erroneous conclusions.
“Slower,” I say. “Please speak slower.”
As a non-native speaker, you work with a smaller vocabulary and all the noise of your own language and culture. Listening in a foreign language takes a lot of effort. Sometimes you might sit and nod, putting all your effort into understanding, following the speaker’s fragmented, straying lines of thought, trying to congeal some sort of understanding from the words you catch. At the end of the conversation, you realise you haven’t said anything at all. There was no time to compose a thought.
“Give me a moment.”
Normally, in our own language, we can compose our thoughts as the other person speaks. It takes a conscious effort to calm our tongue – the words want to escape. We butt in with our opinions. We thrust ourselves into the conversation, spurred on by the essential nature of our thoughts, our words, our opinions, us. In a foreign language, deciphering the sounds into words and words into phrases and phrases into meanings is an all-encompassing task. The cogs whirr. The opinion doesn’t have time to form.
“Sorry, could you repeat that?”
People might mistakenly believe that it’s good listening not to jump in and interrupt the conversation. My Spanish listening is like this: mostly silent. I don’t think anyone would describe my Spanish listening as good. Or, at least, if they did, we can safely assume that they mean ‘for a non-native speaker with only a few years practise’ or they’re trying to be kind. We should be sceptical of such compliments. How many people want to feel they’re speaking to a bad listener?
Occasionally though I do interrupt and ask for clarification of the meaning of a word. A single word. The more confident I feel, the better I listen and the more I interrupt. Lost in a conversation about Queen Victoria and the Chinese Emperor, I picked up on the word knee, I got stuck on the word knee. Why was the word knee in the conversation, why was it so emphasised? Why knee?
“Rodilla como knee?” I ask, pointing aggressively at my own right knee. Of course, knee. To go down on one’s knees, the emperor subservient to the empress. It makes sense when you know.
The speaker might feel frustrated at my ignorance, but this interruption is actually better listening than my silence. If I don’t interrupt, I won’t understand. To listen, to understand anything I hear, I need to pause and ask for clarification. Otherwise, I’m just sitting and nodding.
“Sí, sí, sí…”
The best conversationalists, for me, in Spanish, are the ones who think about what they are saying and consider how I listen. One of my dear friends actually stops and asks me to wait while he chooses the best to explain his thoughts. He’s one of the few people I feel comfortable having a conversation with, in Spanish, on the phone. He’s not just speaking: he’s gaging whether or not I am understanding and then he’s adapting his language to compensate for my poor vocabulary and need for simple sentences. He allows me to parrot back his meaning in my own words so that we both can be sure that I really do understand what I’m being told. Often though, if I’m being totally honest, I’m tired and lazy and I don’t listen well.
I say, “Sí.”
I’ve written here a lot about listening in a foreign language but listening in a foreign language is not so dissimilar to listening when you’re distracted, when you’re preoccupied with your own concerns or where the content of the conversation is beyond your ability to comprehend.
We’re all lazy. If the content is technically too difficult, say requiring prior knowledge, we zone out. And if we’re preoccupied with our own thoughts, or distracted by something, for example messages popping up on a screen, the conversation often falls into silences. Divided attention leads us to nod, sí, but unlike the struggling non-native speaker, we often mistakenly believe we were following and did understand. Maybe you got enough to keep the conversation flowing, but how deep did those words go? Did they just scatter into the wind? Have we missed the clues? Were the words what was being said, or was there a secondary message we were supposed to hear? Are we just guessing?
When the non-native speaker is asked, they can usually admit that they only understood maybe 80% of what was said.
And sometimes we listen blindfolded because we’re on the defence before we’ve had the chance to begin. We assume we know what other people want, what they think and what they believe. We listen to the words, but we don’t wonder what’s not being said. We don’t take time to understand the motivation behind the words. Why does the conversation matter to the other person? Are they trying to sell you something, convince you of an idea, convince themselves? Do they believe what they’re saying, or are they wishing they believed it? Can we tell when someone is lying to themselves?
How are these words serving?
I think often we rush through conversations. It’s hard to listen. We all so busy: thoughts crashing through our minds, places we ought to be, things we should have read, emails that need attending to. The bathroom needs cleaning. We don’t really want to deal with the inconvenience of our routine being crumpled by something we weren’t ready to hear.
Yet I don’t know there’s much anything more valuable than an honest, open, slow and interested conversation with someone who’s attentively listening. A good conversation creates a space in which we grow, it connects us to the world, and to other people’s words. What’s more human than attending to each other’s choice of words?
Suppose a Sentence starts, in the way many books do, with a list of nice things intelligent people have said about the author and his work, but because this is an unabashedly intellectual book (a book for people who proudly think of themselves as being intellectual) then this fawning includes words like ‘erudite’, which to me looks like it means something inappropriate for polite company; ‘elegiac’ which I don’t know how to pronounce has little to do with the Spanish verb ‘elegir’; and ‘edifying’, which to me initially reads as closer to the word ‘edit’ than ‘educate’, like the book is one that will edit your mind, perhaps.
Some of these words strike me as fanciful.
This very good book (I’m paraphrasing) “…serves as both an autobiographia literaria and a vital exemplar of how deeply literature and language can matter in life.” I think Maggie Nelson is saying here that the book is a record of some things the author has read… but alas, as she’s using words not in my dictionary, I’m not sure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for fancy words; I just may not understand them. Suppose a Sentence invokes a lot of shoulder shrugging.
I don’t know. Or I don’t know exactly. These apologetic phrases crop up all the time in my classes. I often teach with the dictionary open in one tab and WordReference in the next, pre-empting my students’ questions. I don’t trust my pronunciation or my spelling, and so I invariably refer to dictionaries and phonetic transcriptions to guarantee that the words my students are learning are standard, ‘correct’. It turns out that a lot of words have many meanings; sometimes sifting through to identify the writer’s intent is an intense challenge. Sometimes my students think they know what a word means, and I have to push them to reassess.
The bright light. The intelligent look. Her bright eyes …?
Careful listening, close reading, real, acute attention… these moments of deep focus can reward us with a new perspective, an insight, a fresh appreciation. And I guess that’s what this book, Suppose a Sentence, is all about. When the pandemic has bound you to the house, your social endeavours have fallen apart, all plans disintegrated, then don’t fret: one can always suppose a sentence.
If only I knew what it meant to suppose a sentence…
The quotation’s attribution reads: Maggie Nelson, author of The Argonauts.
Today, when reading Brian Dillon’s Suppose a Sentence, I learnt that the title structure, such as mine here, starting ‘on’ was typical of Montaigne, who I haven’t read, and was played with by Virginia Woolf, who I have read, creating titles such as ‘On Illness’. Dillon writes about the introductory sentence of Woolf’s essay On Illness, which I feel I have read, although maybe I have merely read that oft-quoted first sentence. I say oft-quoted meaning I’m sure I’ve seen it quoted before and therefore assume that it’s the sort of sentence that people who have sentences to hand for demonstration frequently choose to show.
If my words are wandering today, it’s because at some point, I took a turn off the main path, followed a goat track, tripped over an unexpecting branch and left my life in a pickle trying to carve a route all of its own. Sometimes this route is carved with a machete, sometimes the butter knife. At the moment – pandemic and all – it’s definitely the butter knife style of progression I’m witnessing. In other words, I’m feeling a little disorientated. Slow even.
I am being chased by the word ‘obdurate’. Yesterday I had to look it up in the dictionary. Today I find Dillion uses it. As does the article I read in the London Review of Books this afternoon. The same thing happened fifteen years ago with the word ‘altruistic’, which followed me around until I wasn’t sure whether it was a normal everyday word, and I was dim, or it was a poncy word and better left unsaid. ‘Altruistic’ makes it into a video on elephants I’m studying with one of my students. Selfless elephants are good at caring for one another.
My writing is undoubtedly, or indubitably, mutating (albeit in a butter-knife fashion of progress). I’m reading so much and writing so much it can hardly do anything but change; yet I’m doing so ploddingly, we can hardly call anything here machete action. That said, I’m pretty stubborn – or shall I say obdurate? – about writing. It’s like a compulsion: an addiction to unravelling a language that refuses to be pinned down, my mongrel tongue, idiolectical phrasing, use of words like ‘happenence’.
But my writing mutates to what exactly? And my life is wandering where? And are the two irrevocably connected. And for a woman who spends so much time putting words on the page, why is my spelling so atrocious sometimes? And…
In addition to Dillon’s book on sentences, I find myself reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, which throws you on the first page with its ‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ entrapped in two em-dashes, giving you no guidance as to what you’re reading and leaving you pretty much confused until a third of the way through the book where you settle down praying that dear Mrs Woolf will keep the surprising cauliflowers out of her prose and instead give you something that resembles a story.
‘—“I prefer men to cauliflowers,”—’ such a line would have been better placed in Terry Pratchett. I’ve just finished the father’s copy of Moving Pictures and that has a section referring to cabbages. Cabbages, cauliflowers… Although Pratchett most loved to use his em-dashes to end a line of dialogue. Thus the phrase might need a slight stylistic rearrangement… “I prefer men to cauli—”
I am unsettled. Uncomfortable with myself just sitting here. I’ve placed myself in front of the computer as if expecting that some miracle of composition will spring though my fingers, across the keyboard and with a twist of logic express something meaningful onto the screen.
It doesn’t happen like that. Any time I think about the product of writing I run into a wall. I know that I can only write by burying myself in the process. Settling down into the process isn’t always easy. Right now, I’m tired, despite sleeping what all the textbooks describe as enough hours. It’s not a physical tiredness but a sense of being worn away. The threads are a little too thin. And I’m overwhelmed.
Overwhelmed although it feels like nothing much is going on. I didn’t know that overwhelmed was the word until I hit out the letters. It’s these surprises which force me to keep writing. I trust my fingers to speak more truthfully than my mouth. I rely on my fingers to speak, as if their decisions are the voice within.
I’ve been tracking my thoughts, listening to my fears and another truth I’m hesitant about admitting is that it’s February. At this time of the year, I feel like I’m staring at my feet and hoping the ground beneath them stays put. I find it a difficult month. My mind traverses downward, as if weighed down by some great anchor embedded in the past, and I have to persuade myself to come back to reality.
I’m reminded of the elderly colonel in Nobody writes to the colonel by Gabriel García Márquez who in the beginning of the book is uncomfortable with it being October since he knows October is a month which his frail body despises. He approaches the month with knowing and familiar anxiety, his mind struggling to look beyond the rains of October to a dream of December sunshine. His explanation for feeling under the weather is that it’s October.
It’s February. It’s fair to say that February heightens my anxiety. This time last year I picked up my bags, and headed into a realm of quiet. Somehow I had known from the outset that February was going to hold a challenge, that it would creep under my sky and disrupt my sleep, and wanting to stay afloat, I chose to give myself what I needed: quiet and space, a long hot shower and apple cake.
This year, as usual, I watch my thoughts with caution. I’m trying to avoid a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s probably too late. I believe February, especially these later weeks in February, to be difficult. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which works in two directions. Once we get past past International Women’s Day on March 8th, I’ll feel a sense of relief. call it irrational if you want, it will make no difference to me. I believe I’m much more likely to have a flashback or have a haunted dream in February than any other month. Of course, it’s not guaranteed, anything might happen, yet it happens to be what I believe. Belief is a powerful thing.
This year, I am in a different situation. I can’t simply take the time off and hide away. I have ambitions for the coming year and so I need to work and (both practically and legally) I need to stay put. I can’t wrap myself in sunshine, my go to anti-depressant, because… England.
It’s all tough work. Instead of hiding from myself I need to continue with myself and somehow, hand-in-hand with my discomfort, keep going. It’s invisible work. Hidden work. I wonder how many people live with such a rhythm as mine with the past and present wrestling with each other whenever any anniversary comes to pass.
Part of me wants to have the time alone with my emotions so that I can unravel them and do a spring clean. This isn’t an activity to be undertaken with an audience, although it may lead to more writing which may, or may not, have an audience. I’m not scared of being alone with my emotions, whether those of sadness or of anxiety and fear, but I despise drama and do not want to create it in the presence of others.
I promise myself that at some point I’m going to take myself somewhere sunny and quiet and give myself that much needed time-less space.
I love this quote. It comes from the Ndebele tribe in the north-eastern part of South Africa and was quoted by Bryce Courtenay in his story in the Lonely Planet’s Better than Fiction travel writing collection.
Courtenay goes onto explain that ‘Translated, this simply means that we only recognize and get to know ourselves, who and what we are and may become, by the presence, experiences and observations of other people.’
The other night, my father poured me a glass of whisky
And amid a longer conversation, he expressed his discomfort with correcting my writing, and I found myself wanting to laugh at him. Because of my work, I find myself constantly providing corrections to people’s language. I have done a fair amount of red penning my father’s texts. Heavy-handedly. I tend to ignore his ego and get on with stating my thoughts. If he’s asked me for my opinion, then I’m going to give him it. Obviously, there’s a difference between criticizing and providing constructive criticism and I wouldn’t want him to feel that a criticism of his word choice was a criticism of him. Sometimes, of course, we get a bit defensive and blur the distinction between the criticism of our work and ourselves. This isn’t unusual. Some people aren’t ready to receive criticism of their work because they have confused the two and need to first develop better recognition of the value of themselves before they can embrace feedback. Sometimes in teaching, corrections are ignored because accuracy isn’t the imminent goal. There are times when, as a teacher, I will encourage a student to keep producing language regardless of its accuracy because they need to build confidence and get used to the sound of their own voice.
When my father expressed his discomfort at correcting my writing, I smiled at him and tried to explain that his feedback (even when it was negative) was valuable to me. I wasn’t going to be offended because he points out I’ve used a word entirely wrongly or that my sentence doesn’t make sense. I’m not going to hold it against him if he provides criticism constructively.
What doesn’t work is a vague adjective describing what isn’t likeable about my personality, anything that comes from a place of defence rather than care, anything that comes from a place of jealousy – and pointing out my spots. That much I’m sure of. Some cultures are more direct about feedback, others create indirect ways of getting the message across, but we have to get feedback from each other to grow. Imagine a student whose teacher never provides feedback. How much are they ever going to learn? How well are they going to be motivated?
People are people because of other people
We grow and learn who we are through the interactions we have with the people around us. We need people to learn from and understand ourselves through. Other people show us who we are, and I’m a firm believer in the value of being self-aware.
A chap messaged me recently because he’d read what I’d
said about my ‘bullet train’ mother, and he wanted to know more.
And since I am not an expert at meditation and all that, (although
yes, I do it daily), I asked my mother, who happened to be visiting me in
Spain. I created a mega mind-map, and this has resulted from that conversation.
I wrote it, the mother edited it, and here it is.
Travelling means bumping into other travellers
This week there’s a woman staying in the house with me,
another Brit, another fed up soul who decided that the office didn’t suit her.
She’s on her journey and I’m on mine, and for a week or two our paths run
The inevitable exchange of stories took place. Not where and
who and what – although we dropped some place names and mentioned some
activities and described some memorable characters – but the story about how we
each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people that we will
And it’s these people, running parallel, sometimes for a
long time, sometimes a short time, who feed us with stories, who open our
minds, who influence where we go.
And this woman, a yoga teacher, is one of the many who have
reaffirmed that my journey involves meditation.
In this article, I’m going to talk about how meditation
fits within my life:
I’m going to talk about what I do on a bad day
Then I’m going to talk about having a formal foundation
Finally, I’m going to speak about how being crap at meditation is beside the point
To begin, I want you to imagine I’m having a bad day
My head is whirring. I’m thinking all the thoughts I
shouldn’t. I feel small and vulnerable and helpless, yet at the same time as if
I must act now. I crave the reassurance of busyness and chocolate cake. No…
give me chocolate cake on the move. And yet, if I had chocolate cake, I would
be bewildered by it, and were I to move, I’d end up going in circles.
On occasion I seem to lose all my marbles and I have no idea
who I am or what I am doing. It’s possible I’m not the only person who does
this, maybe there are other people as dramatic as me out there.
So feeling terrible, I lay down. On the floor. And I breath.
First out, then in, but slow, gentle, soothing breaths. Like the air is
caressing my insides. And I don’t bother moving. I want to, but I know it would
only make things worse. It would fuel the need for more movement which, in
turn, would make me more likely to break things or upset people. Plus, when I’m
overwhelmed, my body has an awkward habit of giving in anyway, I become
So instead of moving, I focus on breathing
Exhalation follows inhalation, one after another. I let the
manic thoughts dance through my brain, kicking their legs up in a conga line
until my mind begins to quieten down.
I stay there, lying on the floor, until I have felt calmness
in my mind, a period of tranquillity, and then I lie there a bit longer. Now
though, I begin to let myself plan what I will do when I stand up. More Cuban
dancing starts up, and I let that die down, breathe, and then return to my
I wait until I have a solid plan
That means I know where
I’m going to move, how I’m going to move and why I’m moving. Only then do I let
myself sit up. I take my pulse, check it’s normal, and breathe-in, breathe-out,
repeat a few times. The pulse checking is an oddity that came about from the
PTSD, but it does make me more aware of how my stress affects my body. Once I’m
happy that I have a sensible heart rate, a plan and steady breathing, I stand up.
If you aren’t as bananas as me, maybe your mind doesn’t
flake out with such drama. Maybe you can continue (or at least sustain
yourself) through the overwhelm? But what with my amygdala having a trauma
shaped dent in it, my brutal truth is, I can’t.
There’s no point pretending otherwise
If necessary, I would lay down on the floor multiple times a
day, building up space within my mind. Much of what trauma taught me is wrapped
up in this idea of getting myself lined up for what I want to do next. Now I
can generally calm my mind much quicker. Now I am better prepared to go after
But I get the fundamentals back in place first. Yes, it
sounds odd, but when I was fighting trauma, and things were particularly rough
going, I did need to fight for the fundamentals. I don’t think people place
high enough value on them.
Which is why having a system for emergencies is all well
But it’s not enough. You want car insurance before you drive
into the lamp-post. As you want a foundation in meditation before life has a
hiccup or big, unanswerable question starts to grow in your mind.
I believe that regular formal meditation helps
After much reading, I’m convinced that it strengthens my
mind in such a way that I can be less reactionary and more deliberate in my
actions. My mother has a wonderful formal meditation practice, whereas mine is
less disciplined. I tend to, but not always, meditate before bed, seated, with
a straight back, bum raised on a cushion, on my bed. I can meditate for hours
if I have people around me, for example on a retreat, but in my own bedroom,
with distractions abound, I sometimes find ten minutes to be hard work.
What though do those ten minutes look like?
Once comfortable, I either set a timer, or start an audio
track, or load up a video. Then I stay there, fidgeting as little as possible,
until the timer goes off or the media ends. If, when I sit down, I know I’m
going to have a hard time concentrating, I make sure that I either have a
guided meditation playing, or a sing-a-long meditation. My sing-along
meditation involves repetitive finger movements. These stop me fidgeting. And
the instructions in guided meditations (such as Headspace) were particularly useful
when I first started.
When it’s me and the egg-timer (and yes I might peek at it
every now and again if I’m bored) I sit and observe my breath. Every breath in,
every breath out.
It’s easy, isn’t it
Sit down, observe yourself breathing for a while, done.
Or maybe not. You’ve found a cushion, sat down, noticed your
breathing and then, you find yourself thinking. Your mind is sabotaging your
efforts. Which brings me to my final point…
Being crap at meditation is irrelevant
Sometimes, we run around because we’re scared of what might
happen when we stop. The more scared we get, the faster we run.
When we stop thoughts explode in our minds, we realise that
we’re feeling things that moments before we were oblivious to. Our organised life
loses clarity. Uncertainty builds. Are we doing this right? Is this what
happens for other people?
These thoughts are discomforting, and to ease discomfort, if
you’re anything like me, you desire action. You want results!
there belongs to the Mother.)
You need to do something. Anything. Now.
And feeling this urge and letting it pass ain’t easy.
Perhaps we feel it should be, because we’re not doing anything. Yet it’s not.
Our brains like things to be at an equilibrium
They spend much of their energy making sure that when we’re
hungry, we eat; when we’re tired, we sleep; when we’re cold, we put on a
jumper. Whatever our norm, our brains and bodies try to maintain it. However,
when you start a meditation practice, you begin a journey of change. Your
defence goes to full alert. Sirens sound. Your brain is going to fight hard to
make sure that its equilibrium is kept.
Even if your equilibrium happens to be sending you to an
Maybe you practice for some time and then your brain says
It doesn’t want to right now. It’s too busy. It feels like
you have no choice. You tell yourself that if only you had time, you’d do it,
but you’re very busy, too busy. There are other, more important things to do
than meditate. There’s no time. Wait… is that the truth? There’s not ten
minutes in the day where you can sit still? No, maybe that one’s a lie. Maybe,
you can’t face the idea of sitting down, still, doing nothing. Not a nice
truth, but better than a lie. Anyway, you don’t want to. So you don’t.
Your brain is so used to being full that it’s become
comfortable that way. It wants to maintain that fullness, it isn’t happy about
having space in there, let alone awareness. Your brain’s doing very well at
keeping you safe by hiding you from all that awareness of what you feel.
So you struggle.
And you signed up to becoming a tranquil person. You wanted
your stress-reduced in a proven-by-scientists method. The free health
supplement. You didn’t think about how this would mean living, for months and
months, years perhaps, on the edge of your comfort zone, in a place of change.
You thought it was sitting and breathing
You thought it was something you did
It’s not. It’s something that happens to you, in you, whilst
you’re building the space for it to take place.
You thought it was private
And it’s not. Because whilst you may sit cross-legged in a
locked room, the fact that you are changing is going to affect everyone around
you. Sooner or later, you’re going to stop being quite as predictable in your
reactions as you once were. You’re going to have a little more space between
the BAM of an event and your RARH of a reaction, and this may make some of the
people around you uneasy. They’re expecting an instant RARH.
But as you progress with meditation you start to realise
that things don’t stay the same, they are always changing.
Meanwhile, you may still sit down and, by accident, find
yourself planning a holiday
Or writing a complaint, imagining an argument with the
neighbour, sobbing, fidgeting, trying to roll your rr instead of singing the
mantra, slumping against the wall, cheating yourself out of the last thirty
seconds, starting the timer before you’ve settled, or whatever.
That’s the embarrassing truth of meditation. Sometimes your
brain is like a monkey. However, and of course there’s a huge ‘however’ here,
if you stick at it regardless of what happens, you do change.
And one day, when you’re least expecting it, someone will
say something that makes you stop. Something sweet, like they wish they could
live more in the moment, aware of what goes on around them, more like you.
So in summary (because as I said, we’re practicing
writing articles here):
On a bad day, I lay down until I have a solid plan.
But meditation isn’t a quick fix, you need to build a solid foundation.
And building that foundation can be a strange and uncomfortable process. Change always feels a bit weird.
But it’s worth it
You remember how, at the beginning, I said that the
traveller passing though my life this week and I exchanged stories: the stories
about how we each became who we are, and how we’re going to become the people
that we will be. Meditation has been part of these stories, and it’s clear,
when we listen to each other, that the change it has brought has helped us
craft the lives we want.
And keeps on doing so.
As for the chap who wrote to me, what I say is this, get
your bum on a chair, or on the floor, and start practicing.
A few weeks back I found myself having a drink with an acquaintance, who turned out to be a reader of tarot cards.
I have a literary fascination with
tarot cards, by which I mean I love a bit of magic realism sprinkled into
literature and so my tarot card knowledge comes almost entirely from Chocolat
(and the sequel the Lollipop Shoes) by Joanne Harris, and one of the Philippa
Gregory historical fiction novels which touches upon the life of Joan of Arc.
So later that evening, quietly, I
asked if I could possibly see the tarot cards for myself. Sate my curiosity.
Which is how, in a mixture of English and Spanish (for the session was
conducted in Spanish but I was instructed to think in English) I learnt that
things in my life would change, in a good way, but not in the expected way. And
that I apparently have issue with the patriarchy…
Which perhaps means nothing, but at
the same time did get me thinking about how people change.
In the last article I wrote about
meditation and how I’d slowly, and reluctantly, gone from
random commitments to meditation to a more consistent approach. And that this
idea of daily practice, had impacted my daily routine, forcing it to change.
Now I’m going to
start part two of ‘things I learnt from my mother’ by looking at the early
hours of that daily routine.
have never been good at mornings
Going back a bit it used to be that
I was simply grumpy in the mornings. Having a strong cup of coffee didn’t
seem to help much. The only cure for my grumpiness was time, and so I simply
got on with accepting myself as a grumpy morning person. My dressing-gown
through my teenage years read ‘grumpy but gorgeous’ on the back, but I can
assure you that in the early hours of the day, weighed down with so much
grumpiness, I am far from gorgeous.
Things hardly improved at university
and got progressively worse when I had a 9-5 job. Except my job was 9:30 to
6:30 because there was no paid lunch break and my boss recognised that it would
be better for all concerned if I was given the extra half-an-hour to become
mother meanwhile considers seven o’clock
to be a lay in
As a child I would wake up to
discover her taking a freshly made shepherd’s pie out of the oven, although it
wouldn’t surprise me because I was used to being
woken by my mother’s battle with the pan cupboard long before my alarm went
I learnt to be a heavy sleeper.
Back home as an adult, dealing with
trauma, sleep became challenging in a whole new way. In the evenings I would
have to convince myself to go to sleep, knowing that I would wake up amid engrossing
nightmares. At times I feared sleep. Even now I occasionally have evenings
where the idea of sleep suddenly fills me with a sense of dread. Although, I
also believe good sleep to be one of the best things ever.
In my darker days, in the mornings
my patient mother would wake me up gently with a cup of tea and slowly I’d
emerge from my dreamworld. I couldn’t force myself out of the dreams, but
having that moment of being cared for early in the day really helped. It gave
me something less frightening to cling to.
And slowly I got better. At which
point I moved to Spain and started working again. At a school, where my first
class tends to begin at 8:30am!
I admit, was at first a challenge
Which is why I’m
obsessive about having a strict bedtime. I used to laugh at my mother for
heading to bed at half past nine, but nowadays at half past nine you are very
likely to discover me in my pyjamas preparing my coffee for the next morning,
whilst my house-mates contemplate what they’re going to have for dinner.
much more surprising is that by 7am I’m no longer in my pyjamas. In fact, this
morning at seven I was in leggings and on my yoga mat, as I have been for the
last couple of months.
wish I could give a profound reason for it
I wish I could give you a sensible
explanation, but the only one I have found is that I finally got fed up of
starting the morning trying to bully myself into waking up. I’ve
seen the mother in the morning and she too has a dazed look about her. And yet,
she just gets up and starts the day and bakes shepherds pies. And by 7am she’s
shook off all grumpiness.
So, having surrendered in my
morning battle, I have surprised myself by discovering, I love mornings.
brings me to: people change
When I was in the routine of
therapy, nightmares and feeling sorry for myself I could have easily become
stuck in the idea that ptsd was going to be who I was forever. My
psychotherapist described it as a chronic pain, something that I would carry
And then the mother would put on
some eighties songs and we’d be hula-hooping in the kitchen and
making up silly routines, laughing at ourselves and I would forget that I was
broken and miserable and instead stare at the incredible woman in front of me who
had taken the place of my mother. Because the mother of my childhood did not
suddenly think three o’clock in the afternoon was the time for swivelling her
hips to Abba. It was for work, jobs, lists and hoovering.
mentality isn’t to say, “Have a nice day.”
My mother says, “Have
a productive day.”
between Super Trooper and Waterloo my mother taught me an incredible lesson
And if people change, then I can
the question becomes, to what?
At the same time my psychotherapist
was drumming home the importance of knowing what it is I want. If you know me
quite well you might think this is a bit odd because I am always doing things
and am clearly quite ambitious. The difficulty I have had has been that I’m
not always sure what it is I want and what it is I think I should want.
My psychotherapist suggested that I
needed to practice acting on my frivolous desires. She said that if I wanted to
run up the hill to the ice-cream shop and buy an ice-cream then I should run up
the hill and buy an ice-cream.
I pondered this. At the time I had
no income, and even now my income is erratic. I’m lactose
intolerant, so I could not have a milk-based ice-cream unless I took a lactase
tablet. If I were to run up the hill for an ice-cream, as my psychotherapist
suggested, was I supposed to tell her I’d done it, and could I also do it
combined with another task such as posting a letter.
you’ll gather is
missing the very valid point
When you extrapolate these
analytical thoughts into the whole of life you can begin to comprehend how
knowing what I want from the start is a much healthier option. Life’s
to short to waste on all this meaningless analysis. Rather than trying to
please everyone and then having a tantrum and being manipulative to get my
subconscious needs met, I need to pull my wants out into my conscious mind and
act on them.
Tomorrow I will probably practice
my having what I want by passing by the bakery on the way back from the market.
little lessons began to congeal
And I began figuring out that I
didn’t have to be the person that I’d planned
to be when I was fifteen but that I could be the person who I want to be today.
As my mother was vibrantly demonstrating.
together all these thoughts, here’s
a quick summary:
In part one I wrote about
meditation, and about how having a daily practice is much healthier than an ad
Then in part two I discussed my
history of mornings, and how coming to terms with waking up in the morning and
learning to love the early hours has been a process of surrender.
And finally, I wrote about how my
mother gave me belief that people can change in the cliché
of ‘show not tell’. And how my psychotherapist started me along the process of
knowing how it is I want to change.
I admit it, despite not believing in magic, I want my own set of tarot cards
Old-fashioned ones, softened by age
and use. The rational physicist in me says not to be silly or frivolous, but
the girl who was fascinated by a book on witchcraft from the school library and
stories of magic-realism wants the tactile ownership of the magic for herself.
Maybe, today, there’s
something frivolous you can do, just for you. Just because you want to.
As a child I discovered an engaging tome on witchcraft in the school library.
I remember being captivated. Somewhere in the book I came across what I would now call a guided meditation. Although at the time I would have more likely described it as brain magic. So one evening, when my parents were out of the way and the house was momentarily quiet, I opened the book, settled myself on the carpet with four candles (my smoke alarm took exactly five tea-lights to set off), imaginary pets and my favourite cuddly toys and set myself to work with the enduring seriousness known to geniuses and small children.
I woke from my disorientating trance sometime later, terrified and in awe of the magical powers of my mind.
And then after returning the book to the library. I forgot all about meditation.
My mother’s first attempt to get me interested in meditation failed
Fed up of me complaining about my skin and mouth ulcers when I called her from university she sent me a CD of meditation tracks. I tried it out, figured it was wonderful. With incredible enthusiasm I lent it to a friend, who promptly had terrible nightmares. And then it was popped on the shelf where it stayed. University life came at me like a tornado and between complaining about my skin and the consequences of my ad-hoc impulsive decisions I didn’t have any time for sitting still.
Plus, my father had once said I was a meditative person anyway, so did I really need meditation.
My skin and mouth continued getting worse. Stupidly, I fought on.
Things changed though when my mother started using the Headspace app
Which she has now used daily for years and years. And at some point I cottoned on to the fact that she was changing in front of my eyes. My loving but imperfect father would say things, spiky things, designed to taunt her. My sister and I would tense at the dinner table, waiting for a sharp retort, and that sharp retort just didn’t come.
My sister and I would exchange a confused glance. My father would try again but his comment would not stick.
It seemed like overnight, although in reality it was a process of years, my mother who had been almost as emotionally explosive as me had become grounded. The more stress was poured on her, the taller she seemed to stand.
She started aging backwards
I want to just make this really clear. My mother, version a, the one I grew up with, was like a bullet train. Then the meditation thing started, and well… she’s become aware of the journey she’s taking. She’s still clock orientated, but the seconds tick by slower. Instead of snapping back at things, she’s making astute observations about how other people might feel.
By this point I’d dabbled again in meditation
I didn’t have a regular daily practice. I would start and stop. I read about meditation, tried different methods and frequently decided I was too busy or tired to bother sitting.
As with many of my activities, I would meditate intensely and then stop. I did ten days in a silent retreat and then didn’t sit again for a month. The mother meanwhile incorporated meditation into her daily routine and made it a steady daily practice.
And I was envious
Because my mother was changing before my eyes, proving that complaining and whining and emotional tantrums were unnecessary if only I practiced daily. I was buying books on meditation and she was finishing them and applying them before I’d got through the introduction.
What’s more she was doing yoga every morning. And if meditation is hard to quantify, yoga really is not. When I’m next to her on the mat and my hips don’t bend but her head’s on the floor it’s obvious that her little and often approach is so much better than mine. Little and often also has other benefits.
There is a saying in sports, ‘too much, too soon’
In my experience, most sport injuries can be put down to people trying to change their routines too quickly. Amusingly I understood this concept easily when it came to something like running. I’m perfectly happy to spend a few weeks doing short slow runs, getting used to the terrain, to my shoes, building up the muscles in my legs, and therefore I have relatively few injuries. I know I can run 15km over the moors, because I have done, but when I first go out I aim for three and avoid the hills.
Applying the same knowledge to writing, or meditation just seemed silly.
My biggest excuse for all the things that I haven’t been practicing daily was that I was the sort of person who does bursts of intense focus
I also used to say that I wasn’t a runner. I didn’t run between the age of 13 and 23, which I though proved my point. But when I did start running (and I only initially ran to prove I couldn’t) I realised that I was wrong
For years I used to not be able to touch my toes. Today I can.
Yesterday I recognised I was getting defensive, and I stopped myself, paused and made sure my next word was ‘sorry’.
Mañana… tomorrow, next week, next month, next year. It’s so easy to put off things because it’s not who we are…
But we become the sort of person we practice being today
So today, when I woke up I proceeded through my daily practices: Spanish flashcards, photography video, yoga, writing… and the last thing before I go to bed tonight I will, as I have done all year now, meditate.
And now to quickly wrap this all up, because I’ve babbled on enough:
My mother tried to persuade me to meditate, but practicing herself is what really got me paying attention.
If bullet-train mother can slow down and find ten minutes a day to meditate then surely I can find ten minutes of my day to do the same. Even if it doesn’t feel like it’s in my nature.
We can learn the concept of ‘too much, too soon’ from sport and apply it into our daily life to balance our enthusiasm and focus instead on a regular training plan.
Nowadays, I feel ever so guilty when I feel like complaining about my skin or mouth ulcers. And when I hear others complain although I am initially frustrated, I know I need to breathe and find some compassion. There are many excuses we tell ourselves for not practicing the things we want to be good at, but in the long term you will be the person you practice being on a day-to-day basis. Not the character you take on once in a blue moon.
I might not have continued meditating from my encounter with the book on becoming a witch, and I haven’t learnt to levitate either, but I have continued the habit I set up back then of obsessively reading. It is through this incredible practice of reading that I realise I can now write the things I write.
And that obsessive reading, I guess I also picked that up from my mother…
If you haven’t tried meditating, or have once tried my CD and it gave you nightmares, I suggest experimenting a bit, there might be a meditation out there that suits your needs.
My mother highly recommends the Headspace App and Andy Puddicombe’s voice. If an app is not for you, he’s also written a book and done a TED Talk.
Finally, thanks to the Mother and Jessika for the very welcome spelling corrections…
If your ugliness was remarkable, and you lived in Milan at the end of the fifteenth century, you might have found yourself invited over for drinks with the handsome Leonardo da Vinci. He was keen to meet ugly people.
Leonardo was a gifted story-teller and could induce a plethora of emotions in you though his tales. He’d make sure you were well entertained. His stories would make you crease up with laughter. Laughter so violent your face would contort into extreme expressions.
And then, he would disappear. He’d scamper straight back to his studio, where in painstaking detail he would recreate your fantastical features into drawings designed to entertain his patron and make the Milanese court howl with laughter.
His magic came from his intense ability to focus his attention on your face. As he was telling his stories he would be observing your movements until he knew your expressions better than you’d know the expressions of your own lover.
Such intense attention isn’t something many of us are very good at. Which is a pity really, because intense attention is at the crux of a good life.
In this article I am going to skip speedily through three ideas that changed how I structure my time so that I would be more attentive (and therefore lead a better life):
The relationship between happiness and attention
The ‘attention residue effect’ (or why distractions are doubly bad)
The aim for greatness
Of the many books I have read, Flow by Mihalyi Cskiszentmihalyi might have had the biggest impact
In his book Cskiszentmihalyi talks about that elusive sensation where we are so immersed in a task that it feels almost like a different reality. We are doing something that’s difficult enough to challenge us, but at the same time is just within our abilities.
For me, painting, when it’s going well gives me some of this feeling… or writing a story, where the characters seem to be leading the way and I am compelled to follow along. Or a conversation with an old friend who knows the right questions to ask and so time disappears.
It’s in this state of activity that people report being the happiest.
This was a bit of a ah-ha moment for me, because I figured that if I could work out how to get to this ‘flow’ state, I could make myself happy more consistently.
As you might have guessed though, attention is a prerequisite for flow.
This point was hammered home again when I was reading Cal Newport’s book Deep Work
He quotes a science writer called Winifred Gallagher who after discovering she had cancer decided to put more effort into choosing what it was she was paying attention to.
Like fingers pointing to the moon, other diverse disciplines from anthropology to education, behavioral economics to family counseling, similarly suggest that the skillful management of attention is the sine qua non of the good life and the key to improving virtually every aspect of your experience.
Winifred Gallagher, author of Rapt (Quoted by Cal Newport in Deep Work)
For me this translates to setting time aside, free from distraction, to do the things I love.
So I know now that I have to fight to create a distraction free zone within my life
I have complete sympathy for the teenager at school who explained that she waits until her parents and sister have all gone to bed before getting out her books and beginning her homework and exam revision. This is obviously not an ideal situation, but it drums home how if a fourteen-year-old can make it happen, we can too.
There are small steps you can take
For me, having a meditation practice has been a great instructor. It has shown me the difference between trying to control yourself with willpower, and surrendering and accepting. Battle cries, even internal ones, are exhausting.
I also keep my phone at a distance, play dull background music and try to keep a clear desk. Little things, but each contributes to keeping me on track.
This however isn’t enough
I thought I was doing well, but in reality I was still struggling. No surprise really as the brain is terrible at separating one task from another.
When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately follow – a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task.
Cal Newport, Deep Work
It sounds obvious when you read it like that
Before sitting down to write this article I was listening to a podcast, and now, although a bit of time has passed, a small part of my mind is still drawn back to the ideas of the podcast. Part of me is thinking ‘how do I share this information I’ve learnt with my sister’ whilst another part of me is trying to write this article. My attention is subtly divided.
Cal Newport goes on to explain that this residue is worse if Task A was a light task that was not definitively ended… all that instant messaging is bogging down our brains. I can easily be thinking about a number of different conversations at once, but the truth is, I can’t do this and also write this article well.
I try to soften this attention residue effect with a cup of tea before I start working on a new project
Does that sound counter intuitive? Before I thought the best idea what to jump straight into the next task and not waste time. Take my tea to my desk. But now I’m beginning to think that maybe there is a benefit to ‘putting the toys away’ and having a moment of calm before starting something new.
Meditation and moments of calm might make you a little uncomfortable
And some people get a bit embarrassed by the pseudo-science and the self-help label of some of what I read, but what I’m searching for are techniques I can apply which make me better at what I do. Once I have the idea from the book, it’s time to test it.
After all, the end goal of this is that I want to do some solid work
I want my life to be meaningful. I might believe we’re just a speck of dust in an incomprehensibly large universe, but ambition resides amongst these particles of mine.
I imagine you have ambition too.
Not being mediocre, but being great is the main purpose for profound attention
The biggest theme of the Deep Work book is that if you want to be great at something, you need to spend time deliberately practicing in a focused manner at a deep level.
Which led me to my next book.
My current read is Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo da Vinci
I picked up this book not because of the artistic merit, but because Cal Newport wrote about how Walter Isaacson could fall into a deep, writerly trance and focus with incredible detail on the work he was doing at any moment. This was a skill that he picked up from his journalism career. It’s not an easy skill to muster.
Of course I was curious. I want to be able to focus intently on writing, even when my life is chaotic because I’m in the midst of travelling. However this ability requires a lot of practice. You can’t just sit down and write at this depth as a matter of willpower. You’ll just exhaust yourself trying. Instead you have to train your attention like a muscle.
I admit, I’m motivated to read the book by envy
I marvel at that crisp elegant writing style. But it’s not enough to stare at the phrasing longing for the skill. My job is to keep on creating distraction free moments for myself. I have to deliberately practice the skills that I want to acquire. With time, and deep attention, I will, inevitably, get better.
But of course, reading the book I am also envious of Leonardo himself. Let’s take the odd piece of work of his known as the Vitruvian man, the famous image of a man stood in a circle and a square, arms outstretched. And briefly look at how Leonardo’s obsessive attention managed to create the version of the Vitruvian man we recognise today.
The first thing I was amazed to learn was that Leonardo wasn’t the first man to try creating this image
It was not a novel idea. There was plenty of competition. He had multiple friends (or colleagues) working in Milan at the time, who also took an interest in the old writings of the Ancient Roman called Vitruvius and set about drawing out the proportional image Vitruvius described.
Each of them drew a man, stood with his feet touching the base of a square, head touching the top. From there though things weren’t quite the same. Some artists took the measurements of the ‘perfect man’ straight from Vitruvius’ writing. Leonardo gave the challenge more attention. He got out a tape measure and corrected the measurements, producing an image of a man with incredibly accurate proportions.
Leonardo was great because he paid such greater attention to the detail of his work
He’s great despite barely finishing anything at all. He’s great because with that power of attention he developed a incredible skill. The skill was recognised for its greatness.
And so history has picked a winner, and the version of the Vitruvian man we know today belonged to Leonardo.
And don’t we all want to be winners?
Which brings us to the end.
To quickly recap what we’ve covered here:
If you want a rewarding life, you need to have skillful management of your attention.
Skillful management of attention includes being aware of what we do before we sit down to work because of the ‘attention residue’ effect.
Greatness typically requires committing our focus to the activity we want to be great at, probably almost obsessively so.
One last thought. Remember those ugly people? Well one of Leonardo’s ‘grotesques’, those super ugly pictures, went on to inspire the image of the vile-looking Queen of Hearts in the original illustrations of Alice in Wonderland. I find it quite formidable to think that the incredible expression of her face (I hated her image as a child) came from a real woman, living in Milan in the 1400s, and her momentary emotion has been shared now to entertain so many children.
If you enjoyed any of these ideas, you might enjoy one of the following books:
Walter Isaacson’s beautifully written Leonardo da Vinci
Cal Newport’s easy to read Deep Work
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s a bit heavier, but totally worth it book simply called Flow