Between One Moment And The Next

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Every evening at the same time, the sun reaches a point where it touches the top of the wall and if I’m lucky, like today, I’m there to see it. I stand there watching, taking it in, doing nothing. There’s no wind, and no sound except the noise of an occasional swallow cutting through the air above me.

The moment that has passed is gone, over, and the moment yet to come is still not here – not quite, because this is now. Not the past, not the future, but the present.

“There’s a profound and miraculous mystery right under our noses: this instant of now has no duration at all, yet somehow it contains all the causes from the past that are creating the future. Everything arising to become this moment vanishes beneath our feet as the next moment wells up. Since it’s always now, now is eternal.”
 
Rick Hanson; Just One Thing

But this stillness, this business of staying in the present – it’s not easy. If I try to hang on to what’s happening, to cling to it in any way in order to remember it, I’m no longer there. I’m already remembering the past, or imagining how I’ll remember it in the future.

This is why I try not to think, when I’m taking photographs, that it’s a way of capturing something – I don’t want to capture. I just want to experience – and sometimes (not always) I can do that better with a camera than without one. It makes me watch, and look, and helps me not to think. And thinking – the kind of thinking I really do not want to do, the kind that is mostly imagining things that haven’t happened (yet) and worrying about them – this is what starts to spin round and round in my mind the very first chance I give it. First thing in the morning as soon as I’ve woken up is the worst, when the first few seconds of peaceful blankness have given way to my freshly booted-up conscious brain and the worrying can start. And I remind myself for the thousandth time that this is not real – these are, in fact, just thoughts. I don’t have to believe them. What’s real is now. And now doesn’t have to be worried about.

WPC: Between

I Used To Say No. Now I Say Yes.

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It’s nothing to do with drinking, but it’s a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty sort of thing: faced with a choice I would always, by default, say no rather than yes. Over the years it had become such an ingrained habit that I never questioned it, and fact when it was pointed out to me that this was my response to everything, for a long while I refused to believe it and then got defensive – wasn’t I just being cautious, sensible, avoiding difficulty? Even the most mundane, everyday choices brought an automatic refusal. Did I want a cup of tea? No (I didn’t want anyone to go to any trouble on my behalf); shall we make a trip to the garden centre next week to look for bedding plants? No (we might spot fence paint and remember the fence needs painting and I haven’t got the strength); how about making a cake tomorrow? No (we’ve said we need to cut down on saturated fats and sugar and gluten, and I haven’t got a recipe for gluten-free low fat reduced sugar cake, and then if there’s a cake in the cupboard we’ll just have to eat it….) You get the idea.

It started to cause tension, and then arguments, and then I did start to think about what I was doing and wondered why.

I could see that in fact, saying no was really taking the easy way out. To say no is to stay safely rooted, protected from the effort and confusion of dealing with anything different. To say yes is to make an active decision, to take part, to make not one choice but the first of many – to step out into where things are happening and move forward. Lots of life events had brought me to a condition where I felt safer saying no.

Not that this made me happy. I think I thought it would or I wouldn’t have done it, but at that time I didn’t understand what I was doing or why, so it was my response to everything. So much so that when I finally came to try to behave differently it was extremely hard.

For a while I thought I would just try the experiment of saying yes to absolutely everything. This was an alarming idea but I thought I’d give it a try, and then found it was easier said than done – no just popped out so quickly and yes often seemed so unwise. But I told myself I would exercise caution only when I could see it was really necessary. I am after all equipped with instinct and a lifetime of experience; I would know when to look out for signs of danger and when to say No was the only option. The rest of the time it would just be for fun.

I soon discovered that saying yes may be a little more complicated but it’s also a lot more enjoyable, and after a while I began to get the hang of it. It’s not a big deal, really, but it makes a big difference because far from propelling me unwittingly into difficult and stressful situations (my strategic argument against yes), it did nothing of the sort, and only made me and everyone else around me feel better. To say No is to stay hiding in a dark room, refusing to open windows and venture out of doors; it’s to stay stuck on the bank when you could be floating out freely into the current of a world of possibilities. And venturing into the stream is absolutely fine, once you let go and realise that it’s really no more dangerous than just letting yourself be gently directed into the flow of where you really want to be. It’s no more complicated than that.

I wasn’t born a pessimist, and actually never thought of myself as one until I came to realise what chronic anxiety, worry and fear were doing to me. After that it was a question of discovering how I do in fact have the power to choose; to choose how to think, and whether to say yes or no. And I choose Yes.

Love, and Never a Word Spoken

One afternoon not long ago I fell in love with an emu. It was at the annual fair, where the showground always has displays of animals – mostly horses and cattle – but sometimes some more exotic creatures.

In the centre of the animal enclosure was this enormous bird, corralled in a pen with no label or sign-board to say what it was or give any information about it whatsoever, and I gazed at it in wonder. Taking photographs simply wasn’t enough – I took out a notebook and started to draw, and became totally engrossed.

It was huge – a great feathery mound on massive, powerful legs which for most of the time were folded underneath it, supporting its extraordinary bulk like two perfectly positioned brackets, and the more I looked the more I found there was no part of it that didn’t fascinate me; the tail feathers were amazing, almost like fern fronds as they emerge from the growing plant, all crimped and crinkly, and its feet – I held my breath in awe when it finally rose to its full height and came over to inspect me, and I could see the huge scaly toes tipped with horny claws, and the soft squashy pads of the heel of the feet that looked as if they could run very fast over any terrain, and do horrible things if used as a means of defence.

The thing about drawing, rather than just looking at something or taking photographs is that after a while your awareness of everything else drops away; standing in that busy showground I could have been completely alone with that bird, in the middle of nowhere. And then something else happens; you’re drawing something, and you begin to feel that somehow the boundary between where you end and it begins is somehow blurred, and there’s no longer a profound distinction between the two of you. Which is when I realise I have fallen in love……

We live in a culture dominated by words, and learn and inform ourselves constantly by reading, talking, and thinking verbally – in fact so much so that we believe we can only understand something, or know something, or learn about it, by using words. This is so utterly untrue, that when you get used to the idea of letting go of verbal thought and instead start to understand in a non-verbal way, you realise how narrow and restricting it is to think all the time in words.

Of course drawing isn’t the only way to step aside from thought and immerse yourself totally in something so that you are in a different world of understanding. I know people who do it by gardening, and others who play an instrument, or listen to music, or walk in the woods, or play with their children. There must be hundreds of ways. Every day in the park, I watch people walking their dogs who are finding this kind of connection, and there have been cats, and dogs, and horses, and even guinea-pigs who have given me immediate entry into joyful, wordless love – there’s no other word for it. Thankfully I know that for me, drawing is always a reliable doorway into the non-verbal part of my mind, and I need this doorway – to get into this other way of thinking, of being in the moment.

Visitors

Some days I get more visitors than others. I’m not talking about the kind that knock on the door, or even those that fly in the window (yesterday a tortoiseshell butterfly) or make their way in through devious means (we are regularly visited by cats who take advantage of any opportunity, one of whom belongs to a neighbour but who long ago decided to take up permanent residence with us).

The visitors I am thinking of are those that arrive spontaneously and unbidden in my head, when I may be visited by anxiety, fear, despair, bewilderment, anger, dread and foreboding. I am happy to say that nowadays I find myself welcoming happier visitors such as delight, peace, calm, and joy on a regular basis, but this has not always been the case.

Our brains evolved to react with lightening speed to signs of danger and to register with careful attention signals of fear, anger and so on, as a survival mechanism. (Sabre-toothed tiger! Look out – run!) So much so, that feelings of pleasure, like (my, it feels good to sit here in the sun), – sensations that are important but of a less urgent nature in survival terms, are given less attention on the scale of what’s really important and tend not to register so memorably or with such powerful effect. They tend also to slip away, and don’t re-visit us as spontaneously or dramatically as the negative emotions do, which is why it’s important to redress the balance and give them more of the attention they deserve.

But I’ve also learnt to treat all these visitors for what they are – just that. They come, and they go. It’s no good trying to hang on to the nice ones any more than it’s helpful to stamp on the nasty ones. Far better to observe them; feel them –  there’s no point denying them whether you like them or not – but remember, they’re just passing through. As Rumi’s poem says, better to meet them at the door laughing. Besides, you never know what they’re trying to tell you….

THE GUEST HOUSE

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.

A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of furniture,
still, treat each guest honourably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.

The dark thought, the shame, the malice,
meet them at the door laughing,
and invite them in.

Be grateful for whoever comes,
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

– Jelaluddin Rumi (Sufi poet, 1207-1273)

Living Like A Giraffe

I have been trying to live like a giraffe. Yes, I know this is a picture of a squirrel, and yes, a more appropriate animal for me would be a wild horse – and no, I haven’t actually been living outdoors, grazing thorn bushes on the savannah or nibbling grass or acorns. But the giraffe is the animal in question when Martha Beck describes, in her book Finding Your Way In A Wild New World, what wild animals do at times of trauma, shock or danger.

Unlike humans, animals (or wild ones, at any rate) are not burdened with anything other than the feelings and sensations of the present moment. They react quickly to danger with flight-or-fight responses, and once the danger is passed they slip back into a state of relaxation.

How very different things are for us – or for me, at any rate; I am still learning how events trigger responses for me that are not limited to the thing that’s happening, but rather go flying back into the past and worse still, skidding uncontrollably into the future. Before I know what’s going on my stomach is churning with the re-lived feelings of some previous stressful time and my mind fills with stories of how it’s all going to happen again and again like some horrible personal groundhog-day.

It doesn’t have to be like this, because, amazingly enough, we do have a choice about how we feel. This extraordinary fact took me a long, long time first to believe and then to begin to put into practice, but it makes life an extremely different experience in almost every imaginable way.

I watch animals whenever I can, squirrels, sheep, horses – and often feel a connection that is completely indescribable in words, and needs to be left that way. Now I have even more reason to remember this feeling of connection, and try whenever I find myself lurching into horror-story mode at times of stress, that all I need to do is to live like a giraffe.

Wendell Berry’s poem says all this and more far better than I could ever hope to do.

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Wendell Berry

A Long Moment Looking

The last few weeks have been so busy that very often I’ve been worn out by the end of the day. By that time it’s not only my weary body that’s aching for a rest, but my mind as well – and frequently I find I can’t relax properly at all until my mind has slowed down and stopped. Even if I feel too tired to do it, I try to go for even a very short walk and take my camera with me, and once I’ve managed to think only about breathing and putting one foot in front of the other (funny how rarely we just concentrate on what we are actually doing) I find a rhythm and begin to let go of everything else. Then I just wait for the first thing that grabs my attention and I stop and look at it as if there was nothing else in the world, and let it slowly sink in.

It’s strange but I can never predict what it will be that will stop me in my tracks, or how long it’ll take for it to happen. Some days it can be twenty minutes or more before I find that I’ve suddenly come to a halt and sometimes it’ll be almost immediate. If it takes longer it’s because I need all of that time to come back, step by step, to just being myself. Other days I find I’m already there, and not thinking – just being aware of myself and the place that I’m in, and feeling a part of where I am. But once something stops me I let it do just that – stop me completely. I’ll just stand, or sit down, or sometimes even squat down or kneel to get a better look, and I swear that for a while absolutely nothing is going on in my head. I’m immersed in the simple act of looking.

The other day it was a drain cover, half covered in weeds, lit by the afternoon sun, dappled by shadows, crusted with dirt and rust. I stood looking at it for quite a while, enjoying it thoroughly for a long time before taking pictures. On other days it might be something a bit more obvious, like this clump of wild poppies on top of a wall, but it’s never something I’ve gone looking for.

I used to take pictures mostly as source material for paintings and other kinds of art work, and I still do, but this kind of photography is a completely different thing – it involves quite a bit of thinking, and I’m conscious of what it is that interests me and why. I still take pictures for lots of different reasons, but what I mostly do now is to try to use the camera just to capture or record the moment, not to preserve it or to make use of it, but just to help me focus even more on what I’m looking at, to help me go on looking and to stay a little longer in that suspended state where I’m not thinking, but just seeing.

I used to think that drawing was the only way to sink completely into what you’re seeing, or if not the only way, then probably the best. Drawing focuses all your attention as nothing else does, and cuts out all other distractions. Taking photographs does this differently, but if you’re lucky, and it works, then the pictures have a power all of their own, and keep something of the magic of the moment.