Kaspa writes: Human beings are covered in stories. But there is something else as well. It is possible to be connected to the world in a clearer way. A way in which we project less of our own stuff onto the world and see it more as it really is…
Kaspa writes: Outside the sun is breaking through heavy cloud. A few drops of rain are still falling. There was hail earlier, a loud rattling on the window, and before that the lightest of rain was being whipped into strange shapes by the wind.
The rain is coming down harder now, hundreds of tear shaped drops. The old orange bricks of the terraced houses are becoming dark with wetness and the world is becoming grey again as another slab of dark cloud moves across the sun.
In Watching the English, Kate Fox says that we talk about the weather to ease our social dysfunction, in the same way we would rather talk to a stranger’s dog, than with the stranger themselves. If you are English there are special rules for talking about the weather. You are supposed to complain, and there is a hierarchy of which weather is worst that seems to hold true no matter who you speak to. Cold and bright is at the good end of the scale. Warm and wet is better than wet and cold, and so on.
In this way we go about greeting people by complaining about the rain. When the weather clears up it doesn’t take too many days of sunshine before we complain about that as well.
I’m sure, if you think hard enough, you can identify some of the codes of your own culture. (Often they become national stereotypes. It’s a cliche to say that the English always complain about the weather. But most of us do actually complain about the weather).
The rain has passed now and I can hear the song of a blackbird, the cooing of a wood pigeon, and distant traffic.
Human beings are full of this social programming. We pick these hidden rules up from each other. We pick some up from our parents, then we throw those away (until we go visit our parents) and follow codes we’ve picked up from our peers instead. Most of the time we don’t even notice that we are following a set of norms… So I complain about the weather a lot? It’s just who I am.
I read the Guardian. Did I really choose to do so, or do I just want to be the sort of person who reads the Guardian…
I do believe in free will, as it happens. But I also believe that we are deeply conditioned, and that this social programming runs deep in all of us. Do you remember how important it was to wear the same designer clothes that everyone else had when you were at school? (Or not too, if you belonged to a different tribe.)
Is the weather really that miserable? Actually I quite like to listen to the rain, or the hail. I like that it changes so much. That the sky and the garden look so different each time I look up from my PC.
Writing about the natural world helps me to realise this. It helps me to find things to praise when other people are complaining. It helps me to see when I am just behaving in a mechanised way, when I am following various social instructions. It helps me to see through those instructions and to really love the cloudy grey sky.
This what mindful writing is working towards. Towards freedom. The freedom to be yourself, and not just your conditioning…
Mindful writing exercise
- Is there something you say or do habitually without thinking?
- Look underneath the mechanical action or words.
- Reach out to something true and write a small stone about that.
If you want to look deeper into your own conditioning and to live more authentically and freely, have a look at our mindful writing courses. I’m running Eastern Therapeutic Writing in May (Five spaces left) and Fiona is leading Writing Ourselves Alive. (Full)
photo: drop by cubanjunky
Some of these thoughts come out of reflecting on the process of choosing small stones for our 2012 anthology. So many people (myself included) are struck by seeing similar things in the natural world: the moon, birds on telephone wires, sunrises and sunsets. When you have read pages of small stones about the moon, you start to look for those that stand out from the crowd.
I have called the quality of this standing out ‘freshness’ because the best small stones, like all the best art, encourage looking anew. In the best writing I am struck again by how beautiful the moon is. The moon, in the best small stones, becomes alive again – standing out from the cookie cutter moon found in staler writing.
The word cliche comes from the French word for a printing plate (also called a stereotype) used to reproduce the same set of words over and over again. If you were to read every copy of a single pamphlet produced by one of these movable type machines, you would read the same words, the same images and ideas, hundreds of times. You would come close to feeling how I feel upon seeing another small stone about the moon… (I’m exaggerating a little, to make the point.)
Staying with that imaginary pamphlet – the writer may have been inspired by something completely fresh. The thoughts fell into place and our hypothetical author jumped out of the bath and ran to her writing desk to record the ideas before they slipped away.
When do these thoughts become stale? It’s unlikely that we really would read the same pamphlet hundreds of times. But the ideas there trickle (by word of mouth) into other people’s thoughts and writings as well, and soon the whole town is repeating them without thinking.
When your neighbour slips some of these ideas into the conversation, if they register at all, it is as something you have heard too many times before.
A few towns away a second hypothetical writer is completely oblivious to all of this. Somehow the same great insight comes to him and he produces his own tract. Although the inspiration behind the writing was just as great, when it reaches the people of the first town it is met with derision. The second writer sees his pamphlet filling up waste paper bins.
So the thoughts sound cliched even though they were completely fresh to our second writer.
I think there are two routes to writing something deathly. The first comes from lazy thinking or observation – we repeat something we have heard hundreds of times before without thinking. As old as the hills. Fit as a fiddle. As white as snow… (have you ever looked at the snow? At the muddy slush, slicked with engine-oil, that piles up at the sides of the roads?)
In the second case we really do see something in a fresh way. But someone else has gotten there before us. In the world, our insight has become old before we even thought it. Maybe you saw that the clouds really do look like cotton candy – but it’s hard not to read that as cliched.
Of course this gets harder as the world gets smaller, and more and more writing is shared to more and more people.
How can we make our writing fresh?
Two pieces of advice. The first one is something we often say: look and look again. What is it you are really writing about? Look at what you have written and ask yourself, “Is this what’s really there?”
The second is to read lots of good stuff. What are other people writing? What do you like? What words and ideas get repeated? What did you used to see getting repeated but don’t any more (writing has fashions, like anything else).
Mindful writing exercise
- Write a small stone about something in the world you can re-visit. (A place nearby, an object you could find again etc.)
- Look at what you have written.
- Have you made any comparisons that you’ve seen elsewhere?
- Have you described something in the same way that others describe it?
- Go back to the object of your small stone.
- Look at what is really there – is there a fresher way of describing what you see? What shade of green is the grass….
I slept when I could, and took cold-meds to get me through birthday parties, and visiting my parents. The cold lasted a few days. When I felt better my first job was sweeping away all the junk on my desk, including the post-it note with my writing prompts on.
The act of writing those last two paragraphs has given me a clear image of that post-it note, and suddenly I can recall what those three sentences were. I’ll share the first with you today… look out for the others later in the week.
Make a list of all the things you need to get done. Put the most important things at the top of the list, and the least important at the bottom. When you start work, start with the first item. When you finish that, move on to the second. Don’t worry if you don’t finish all the jobs, if you started at the top you will have done the most important one.
I like this system for two reasons. The first is that it often works for me. The second is more interesting – when it doesn’t work, I learn something important about myself. For example at the top of my list right now is writing this blog post. As I write I can feel some resistance to the work, and I can see how easily distracted I am. Fiona is working in the same room and as soon as she makes the most mundane of comments I’m trying to engage her in conversation rather than finish this post.
This is where the interesting part comes. To really look deeply at that resistance and ask, ‘What’s going on?’
Right now I know that some of the resistance comes from the fact this is my second attempt at writing something about this subject. I asked Fiona to proof read the first post I had written, and she said that it would be better with an example. She was right, but I hate to admit that I can’t get something absolutely perfect the first time around (no matter how unfeasible that is). Rewriting the post is a real admission of my imperfection.
I’m still distractable. This next paragraph follows a bout of crazy hand jiving to The High Road by Broken Bells.
It might be that I’m avoiding doing the most important job because of something dysfunctional in myself. Lets call it karmic resistance. From a completely enlightened point of view there’s no good reason not be writing this blog post. I am human, and I don’t write perfect articles at the drop of a hat. In fact I don’t really do anything perfectly at the drop of a hat. That’s okay though. From one point of view it’s no problem to admit my humanity, and even to include my humanity in my work. It’s just that little voice, from somewhere in my childhood, I guess, that wants to be ‘perfect’ straight away.
It’s important to me to honour that voice in my own way. To mention it here (or in my personal journal, perhaps). But it’s also important to be able to write this blog post, I can honour the resistance without giving in to it.
Whilst Fiona was reading what I wrote the first time around, I also read it back. I had a feeling there was something missing in what I had written, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I had acknowledged that I don’t always get on with what I should be doing, and how that gives me the chance to engage with my resistance, but I had assumed that resistance was always meant to be overcome. The list was the master, and I was the slave.
Sometimes the resistance is coming from something important. It might have been that I was avoiding writing this blog post because there was something else I should be doing. Maybe something not even on the list (When was the last time I called my mother?)
This time yesterday I went for a walk down to the stream that runs though woods near here. It wasn’t on my list for the day, but it was exactly the right thing to be doing. When I came back I was refreshed and recharged and went through the rest of the day with much more ease than if I had chained myself to my desk.
Real life is more complex than a system that can be summed up in a few lines. Today when I encountered resistance to writing this post, the right thing to do was keep writing. Tomorrow the right thing to do might be to go for another walk. I can’t give you one answer that will work all the time.
Look into your heart. Look at the world, to the jobs you have to do. Be honest. Let yourself fail sometimes. Life doesn’t always fit on a list, but sometimes a list can help.
Happy Wednesdays people, and happy list keeping.
post it note art by Adrian Wallett
P.S. Also check out this other article Susannah links to: 106 excuses that prevent you from ever becoming great
A few days ago Fiona and I were talking about moving house again. For a while we’d been toying with the idea of moving to a more rural, remote, location. A place where we could step out of the front door and into the countryside, instead of out into the street as we do now. In the end we decided to stay where we are, there are lots of good things about where we are now, and we hadn’t seen anything that ticked all of our boxes.
The decision to stay motivated us to think about how we use the space here. Could we be more settled in this house?
We bought two new (pre-loved) sofas for the sitting room. We moved one of our old sofas up into the office, and got rid of the other one. We moved the uncomfortable cane sofa that was in the office out into the conservatory and set about making the office into a livable space. If this winter is as cold as last winter, we’ll retreat up here away from the draughty single glazed sitting room…
The last big job was to sort though all the accumulated stuff on the shelves, and in the drawers of my desks… There were piles of papers I hadn’t looked at since I’d heaped them on the shelves, over a year ago, back when we moved in.
Last Sunday evening, after our furniture shuffle, my energy ran out. I knew that I’d got meetings on Monday (or thought I had, see Monday’s post: We all get things wrong sometimes) and we both had plenty of work to do on Tuesday. We earmarked Wednesday for the big sort out.
On Monday evening I was working in the office. Fiona was sitting up here too, looking at the mess on the shelves, thinking about starting to clear them. She said that she was going to make a start… An hour later, when I had finished my job, she was still sitting on the sofa… I can hardly blame her really. I didn’t want to start then, either…
On Tuesday Fiona was busy seeing clients all day. I did some writing in the morning, ran some errands in town, and then settled into some study. All the time ignoring the looming mess in the corner.
The way of Zen is supremely practical. Although we tie ourselves up in knots with our ideas and feelings, the way through generally begins with acting purposefully now. Know your purpose at this moment and there is no difficulty in knowing what to do. Paradoxically, perhaps, being able to act in this way means letting go of trying to control tomorrow or yesterday. Simply do the right thing now.
I put the book down and started sorting the shelves out.
I packed up around 30 books to be recycled (off to the amnesty bookshop later) and got rid of huge amounts of stuff. It wasn’t long before Fiona appeared. Together we created a space we can both live with. The essentials are stored on the shelves, the books we want to read are there, as well some beautiful objects we wanted to display. Job done.
We sat back and enjoyed the clean space. We enjoyed knowing that that we’d now have the whole of Wednesday free…. (I’m working at the weekend, so today is ‘our day’)… of course it’s now mid-morning and I’m writing a blog post while Fiona catches up on email…
In our hearts we often know what our purpose in this moment is. Whether it’s simply sorting through a years worth of junk, or joining the occupy movement, or baking a cake for a friend. In my experience the courage to take the first step comes with taking the first step. Simply do the right thing now.
If you want to explore Zen philosophy, and getting things done, think about joining my Eastern Therapeutic Writing course. It’s a month long, and we’ll also look at deepening our relationships with others through naikan and writing Japanese poetry…
(photo by cometstarmoon)
Kaspa writes: When Fiona and I moved in together we each came trailing cases full of books. We each had some visual art too, and have collected more since, but most of our belongings are paper based and word filled.
A year and a half later I’m still finding poetry on the shelves that I’ve not read before. A few days ago I pulled a slim volume called Let Evening Come from the bookcase. It was Jane Kenyon’s third collection of poems. As I read her poems my daily preoccupations faded away and I felt myself sinking into her world, and it is beautiful.
David Brazier’s thesis in Love and its Disapointment is that all art is motivated by love. Not perfect love, perhaps, but love is at the root. Reading Kenyon’s work I get a palpable sense of that love, and of its often meloncholic flavour. And the world is melancholic, even as it is beautiful.
Her observations are full of grace and as I go into the world filled with her words I think that I am paying more attention to the world. Through being immersed in her clear vision of the world, my vision is a little clearer.
Kenyon’s style of writing fits in very well with the small stone philosophy. Look at these lines from Heavy Summer Rain:
Everything blooming bows down in the rain
white irises, red peonies; and the poppies
with their black and secret centres
lie shattered on the lawn.
Or this, the second stanza, from Lines for Akhmatova:
The narrow canals gleam black and still
under ornate lamps, and in the parks
golden leaves lie on sandy paths
and wooden benches. By light of day
old women dressed in black sweep them away
with birch stick brooms.
Beautiful. So – how to fall in love with the world? Drench yourself in some of this beautiful poetry.
I have another answer too. Start writing. Start looking at the world and writing small stones, (or something longer).
If you’d like some help getting started check out Fall in Love with the World in 30 days (write small stones) for 30 days of writing tips and small stone writing guidance.
Or why not learn The Art of Paying Attention, this November. The Art of Paying Attention is one of our month long e-course where we’ll think about how we can learn to pay attention to the world, to pay attention in relationships, to pay attention to ourselves and to pay attention to spirit. (We’re offering four different e-courses in Nov/Dec – check them out here: e-courses).
I’d love to hear what poetry has helped you fall in love with the world, let me know in the comments below.
I had written the date down wrongly.
The drive back was beautiful. The countryside is full of amazing autumn colours at the moment, and I collected plenty of small stones.
it is autumn and the hedges are on fire
yellow ash leaves dance on the road in the wake of a rattling truck
a mottled grouse furrows a path through the sky
Kaspa writes: I lapsed a little with my small stone practice. Let me tell you when I lapsed, and what I noticed when I started again…
“A small stone is a very short piece of writing that precisely captures a fully-engaged moment.” From How to Write Small Stones.
In January, Fiona and I asked you all to notice one thing every day and write it down. You all produced some beautiful small stones. I took part then, and after January I kept going, noticing and writing one small stone each day, and recording some of them on my blog.
I kept writing all through the July challenge (when we invited you all to write something down each day again), and then…. We came back to the UK from France, and I was doing more hours at work. I focused on the e-courses rather than my own writing… not that these are good reasons of course. But I stopped writing small stones.
I kept seeing and hearing other people’s though. Amy Palko and Joanna Paterson started writing them. They were (very briefly) mentioned on BBC Radio Scotland. I was reading really lovely ones on our forum and on twitter with the #smallstone hash tag. A friend emailed me and asked where they could read my small stones.
I created a new badge for all you small stone writers. And I started writing again. When I started writing small stones again I noticed three things:
1) Writing small stones makes me pay better attention to the world. I thought I was pretty good at paying attention – but since I’ve started writing again I’ve really been looking and listening to what’s going on. Really paying attention brings a whole host of things: moments of delight, as well as of longing and sadness. It deepens my connection with the whole of life.
2) Writing small stones makes me a better writer. In the act of writing I search for accurate descriptions, and for interesting metaphors and similes. I try and avoid clichés – I want my small stone to be as fresh as the moment that I noticed. Through writing small stones I have learned new names for things, I have consulted colour charts and plant guides (it’s a cherry laurel at the bottom of next door’s garden) and I have turned the sounds of words over again and again…
3) I love doing it. I enjoy seeing things in the world, and I enjoy the craft of forming something beautiful with words.
If you need a fourth reason to start writing – how about the wonderful connection with people all over the world doing the same thing, each noticing one thing properly, writing it down, and sharing it on Twitter, Facebook, on their blogs, and at our forum? Such wonderful words from wonderful writers. Join us today.
Against pristine white clouds, the silhouette of a red kite, with wing-tips like splayed fingers.
Kaspa writes: I say to people that I live a stones throw away from the Malvern Hills – but I’d have to have a strong arm.
I suppose we are on the hills really, but it doesn’t feel like that until you get out of the houses and into the woods and scrub-land a little higher up the slopes.
I’ve not been up to the top for weeks. Last week I felt the urge and resisted, in favour of doing something more useful. By the time I had finished my to do list, rain had swept in and I could no longer see the tops of the hills.
Today I followed the urge to climb.
We’re still feeling some of the weather from the edge of Katia – clouds raced across the sky, breaking up and letting through the bright late summer sun, and as I climbed higher I felt the increasingly strong wind blowing across me and through me.
Our minds and souls are conditioned by the spaces we inhabit. On the hilltop, looking out across the flat Worcestershire plain, it feels like I am not just surrounded by wide open spaces, but that I am somehow a bigger, more open, space myself.
Sitting on the rolling turf I compared the sensations in my body in that moment, to how I feel elsewhere. I am looser up there, more relaxed. I felt more like the proverbial bamboo, or willow, that bends with the wind (like the thinnest branches of the hazel which tipped the underside of their leaves towards me in the gale). A stark contrast to how I sometimes feel sitting at my desk.
Today’s experience of being up on the hills reminds me how important it is for me to go up there. It allows me to connect with something that I find more difficult reach down here. The bigger skies affect my own sense of perspective and the wind blows away thoughts I should have let go of already.
Now, back at my desk, I promise myself that I’ll get up there more often – and that in the meantime (glancing at the piles of junk on my desk) I’ll try and bring some of that space back into the rest of my life.
How does the space you’re in affect you? What are your favorite places to be in? Is there any way you can bring some of that place into your ordinary life?
Yesterday, after mumbling good morning to Fiona, I realised that I didn’t have anything that had to be done. With that thought a wave of tiredness engulfed me and I crawled back under the duvet.
I was feverish. Boiling hot, but shivering with cold at the same time. I fell into a deep sleep and wild, strange, dreams.
Today I feel much better. For days my body had been telling me to rest, but I’m not always that good at listening to it. I wasn’t ill enough to not go into work (I work away from home three days a week) and when I was at home I didn’t allow myself to rest properly. As soon as I was able to stop, the illness rushed in.
In my experience, if I am able to rest as soon as my body starts sending me that message, the virus doesn’t take hold in the same way as when I keep holding it at bay. If I keep putting energy into being well, not only does that sap my energy and enthusiasm for everything else, but when the bug gets me… it really gets me.
There are two lessons to be learnt here. The first is that I can still do better in listening to the messages my body is telling me, and in learning to rest properly when I’m not working.
When one is one’s own boss, if you don’t work it doesn’t get done. But it’s also true that once the work is done it’s easy to keep sitting at my desk and not working, in the false belief that the longer I’m in the office, the more successful I’ll be.
The second lesson is that I can learn to work and rest better, to work when I am working, and to stop and rest properly when I’ve finished what needs to be done.
If you want to learn to pay more attention to yourself, I’m running our flagship e-course The Art of Paying Attention in September, which includes learning to pay attention to the world, to ourselves, in our relationships and to spirit. Registration closes tomorrow. Click here to join us.