The skills of exploration

Bicycling and walking offer unique entry into exploration itself. Landscape, the built environment, ordinary space that surrounds the adult explorer, is something not meant to be interpreted, to be read, to be understood. Unlike almost everything else to which adults turn there attention, the concatenation of natural and built form surrounding the explorer is fundamentally mysterious and often maddeningly complex. Exploring it first awakens the dormant resiliency of youth, the easy willingness to admit to making a wrong turn and going back a block, the comfortable understanding that some explorations take more than an afternoon, the certain knowledge that lots of things in the wide world just down the street make no immediate sense. But exploring not only awakens attitudes and skills made dormant by programmed education, jobs and the hectic daily dash from dry cleaner to grocery store to dentist. It sharpens the skills and makes explorers realize that all the skills acquired in the probing and poking at ordinary space, everything from noticing nuances in house paint to seeing. Great geographical patterns from a hilltop almost no one bothers to climb, are cross training for dealing with the vicissitudes of life. Exploring ordinary landscape sharpens all the skills of exploration.

Outside Lies Magic by John R. Stilgoe (pp. 10-11)

I read Outside Lies Magic a few months ago, but my mind kept returning to this quote. Stigloe nicely captures what I enjoy about cycling or walking. Spending time to take the what I’m passing, stopping occasionally to get a better look.

I used to spend weekends walking with some friends. I was always the laggard: looking at the way sewage pipes were integrated into a bridge, identifying a new plant of fungus I’d never seen. I must have driven them crazy.

This is what walking was about for me: not the rush to the end (though the inevitable beer at the pub was nice), but the discovery along the way. It was about learning something new, finding something I’d never seen before, solving a mystery.

I recently went on a hike with my young son. We were with a large group, and he was lagging behind. He’d learned to take time looking at what he was walking past. And yet on this hike I became frustrated with him, tried to rush him, tried to get him to keep up. This was a mistake. It’s one of those regrettable mistakes that you almost know you’re making as you’re in the act of doing it. Fortunately, my wife has more sense than I have. After a while, we simply stopped and had lunch on our own. We then resumed our usual pace of wandering and wondering, rather than pushing mindlessly and blindly on to the next point on the map.

I feel the same about cycling. I cycle home from the train station in the evenings. It’s become one of my favorite parts of the day. The thirty minutes or so that I cycle home are the only point in most of my days when I can take note of the changing position of the stars, the progression of plants that a growing in the verge or the birdsong that accompanies me on these ride. I’ve occasionally stopped (though not often enough) to examine a flower that I noticed as I passed or to get a better look at hard-to-see constellations on a moonless night.

I don’t think I’d make a very good road cyclist. The point seems to be to go as fast as possible. While I can understand the thrill of speed and the wind rushing past, I’m more drawn to exploring roadside mysteries than rushing past them.

I like to think that in doing this I’m honing what Stigloe calls the skills of exploration. I need more practice. I don’t stop often enough. I don’t take enough opportunities to explore. Having a six-year-old son helps, though I have to remember to follow his lead rather than expecting him to follow mine.

Involved in and a part of life

[A]s things are designed in this world of sentient life there can be no good, no sweetness or pleasure in life, nor peace and contentment and safety, nor happiness and joy, nor any beauty or strength or lustre, nor any bright and shining quality of body or mind, without pain, which is not an accident nor an incident, nor something ancillary to life, but is involved in and a part of life, of its very colour and texture.

from W.H. Hudson’s Hampshire Days (p.28).

I’ve heard many variations on “Life is pain” from the Buddha to The Princess Bride, but never so eloquently stated as this.

Our place in the world

The human mind is structured around stories. Connecting things to stories, poems, songs, music and visual art makes this knowledge more real to us, charged with emotive power, which aids in the forming of memories. It helps us come to know things, and to know their place, by knowing ourselves more deeply as well. Storytelling helps us to find our place in the world.

This is from a fascinating article by Gene Tracy on how we’ve become increasingly disconnected from the stars.  

The entire article and this section in particular resonated with something I’ve been doin lately. 

A few months ago, my son received a star projector from his grandfather. This has become a part of our bedtime ritual. When I’m home in time for bedtime, we tell Nub Nub stories: these a creatures that have a secret hideout in the centre of the Earth and have adventures in the stars. 

The constellations are characters in these stories. We usually start with their various mythological stories and proceed from there. 

Over the past few months, both my son and I have become much more familiar with the constellations. It’s not something we set out to do, but sort of evolved over time. 

We have a much better knowledge of the stars than we would if I decided to teach him about the constellations and he had to memorise them. We may have done it, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun and we’d have no personal connection to those constellations. Boötes, for instance, is a constellation I’ve never paid much attention to, but he’s a pretty important character in the stories. 

This is something that I hope I’ll remember when there is something that my son needs to learn: we learn through storytelling and practice. Memorization and rote learning are usually not the way to mastery of a subject. 

Queries

  • I wonder if there is a time when rote learning trumps more experiential learning. The obvious one would be multiplication tables. I spent months memorizig these as a child. Now, however, my son’s school seems to be focusing on understanding how multiplication works, rather than memorization.
  • Tracy’s article mentions the extended mind. It’s an unteresting idea I’ve encountered before, but need to explore further.
  • I’m not sure I entirely agree with some of the conclusions of Tracy’s article: specifically that technology erodes put sense of place and the importance of storytelling. It’s an idea that goes back to Plato’s concerns about reading and the loss of memory. Is it more true now than it was then? Or isnthe technology just less familiar? Or do new technologies fron reading onward actually change us in ways that eventually become familiar and imperceptible?

Top 10 songs of 2015

In recent years, I haven’t listened to enough new music to put together a to 10 list. This year, however, was a great year for music. I listened to a lot of new albums, and actually made it out to three gigs.

A couple of weeks ago, Gavin asked a few of us to what out a top 10 dogs of the year. Will has already put his list together. I’ve also been discussing some of my choices with my brother on Facebook.

And so, After a week or of agonizing over my favorite albums and looking for the stand-out tracks, I can finally announce my top 10 tracks of 2015:

  1. “Dead Fox” by Courtney Barnett
  2. “24 Frames” by Jason Isbell
  3. “La Loose” by Waxahatchee
  4. “Homonovus” by Speedy Ortiz
  5. “A New Wave” by Sleater-Kinney
  6. “Back to You” by Twerps
  7. “All Your Favorite Bands” by Dawes
  8. “I Can’t Explain” by Surfer Blood
  9. “I Can Do No Wrong” by American Wrestlers
  10. “I Don’t Wanna Relax” by Joanna Gruesome

You can listen to my Best of 2015 – songs list on Spotify.

If you’re interested in delving deeping into what I’ve been enjoying this year, there is also a Best of 2015 – albums list. 

Newton’s queries

Franklin had read Newton’s Opticks, for example, which contains a set of experimentally proven propositions and ends with a group of “queries,” unsolved questions for further studies.

This was a passing reference in Lewis Hyde’s Common as Air (p. 34), but it caught my attention.

In writing posts on this blog—especially longer posts—I’ve found myself compelled to come to some sort of a conclusion at the end of the post. While this may be what is expected of most non-fiction writing, this isn’t what I want to do on this blog. I want to capture and explore ideas that are new to me without necessarily coming to a conclusion. 

Sometimes in the course of writing about a new idea, I will draw a conclusion, but many times the conclusions at the end of these posts have been forced. Forced conclusions are not particularly compelling conclusions.

Newton’s queries are interesting because they provide a potential way to end a blog post while satisfying my deeply felt need for a resolution of some sort.  A set of questions—things I’m still uncertain about or need to research further—is also more in keeping with the purpose of this blog. It also invites commentary and conversation. Something I’ve not been very good at encouraging on this blog.

Queries

  • Is working toward a conclusion is a better way of exploring new ideas? For the moment, my hypothesis is that ending with unaswered questions, rather than a conclusion is a better way of doing this. By for the moment it’s only that: a hypothesis.
  • What I’m proposing here is different from what Newton did. He did come to a conclusion. What I’m doing on this blog isn’t science. These posts aren’t experimental outcomes, but in a way they are the experiment. Iss there a balance between coming to a conclusion and highlighting questions that I’d still like to find an answer for?

Estovers

Common or common land was not owned by commoners. The soil and anything which it contained, or grew on it, was part of the ‘waste’ or uncultivated land (in the sense of a grown crop). This was usually, but not always, on the outskirts of a settlement. It was a part of the land within a manor and as such was owned by the lord of that manor. The right to the use of the ‘fruits’ of that soil depended on the customs within that manor. These rights acquired names used throughout England. Common of Pasture, the right to graze animals on the land; Common in Soil, the right to clay, sand, gravel and stone; Common of Turbary, the right to cut turf and peat; Common of Piscary, the right to fish and Common of Estovers, the right to take wood from the land, but only to a set circumference. Common of Estovers was further divided into; Housebote, wood to repair a house; Firebote, for fuel; Plowbote, to repair farm implements and Hedgebote to repair boundary hedges and fences.

I first encountered the notion of “estovers” (the right to gather wood on common land) when I was doing researching Odiham Common before we visited it for a weekend walk. This was my first indication that Commons didn’t work the way I thought they did. Since moving to the UK, I’ve lived close to one Commmon or another—Tunbridge Wells Common, Clapham Common, Tooting Common, Streatham Common. I had come to think of a Common as a place anyone could visit and projected that back into history. Assuming that it had always been this way: that anyone could visit, graze their animals, take what they needed from a common. The Commons, I imagined, where an idyllic past where people had what they needed.

To be honest, I was probably influenced to view the commons in this way by Garrett Hardin, whose Tragedy of the Commons has been influential in the way we conceive of the commons. 

The tragedy of the commons develops in this way. Picture a pasture open to all. It is to be expected that each herdsman will try to keep as many cattle as possible on the commons…

As a rational being, each herdsman seeks to maximize his gain…

[T]he rational herdsman concludes that the only sensible course for him to pursue is to add another animal to his herd. And another; and another…. But this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit–in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.

It turns out that this kind of Commons has never really existed. Hardin’s Commons is best approached as a thought experiment, rather than an historical reality. To be fair to Hardin, he does propose mechanisms for managing the rights to a Common, and later wrote a clarification that said he his original paper addressed the “unmanaged” commons. Still, Hardin’s hypothetical Commons set out in the Tragedy of the Commons still looms large in our collective understanding of what a Commons is.
 
Tim Harford discussed Hardin’s hypothetical commons in a recent podcast, and contrasted it with the traditional English Commons.

Garrit Hardin explained that there was no way to sustainably manage the common property. The only solution was to natoinalize it—let the state run it—or to privatize it—divide it up into little parcels and hand them out to individuals. But the English Commons lasted for hundreds of years, perfectly sustainably. They were managed by a community; they were owned by a community. These were people who were neighbors. They lived next door to each other, and they could police those rules.

Harford is somewhat idealizing the past, or at least collapsing it. While Commons were likely managed by a community early on, they eventually came to resemble the situation described in the first quote of this post: the lord of the manor owned the land and decided which commons rights to grant. Lewis Hyde in Common as Air (p. 29) offers a nice potted summary of these two historical approaches of managing the Commons:

In the Saxon age before the Norman conquest, it is assumed that all village lands were held and worked in common, except for a few enclosed gardens and orchards. No one person or family was the ultimate owner; what belonged to people were use rights, the commons being the place those rights were expressed. During the many centuries after the Norman conquest, the lands of any village were more likely associated with a local manor, the assumption being that the soil belonged ultimately to the lord of the manor and that rights of common were granted on condition of fealty to him and attendant acts of tribute (military service especially).

Nevertheless, this doesn’t invalidate Harford’s key point in the podcast: the Commons have been successfully managed throughout history, whether by a community or by a feudal lord. In making this point, Harford highlights the work of Elinor Ostrom on “common pool resources.” Ostrom’s PhD focused on the use of fresh water in the aquifer under Los Angeles, which was being depleted of fresh water and slowly filling with salt water. On the surface, usage of the aquifer seemed as if it was irrefutable proof of the Tragedy of the Commons. What actually happened was very different.

What actually happened was that people got together… and hammered out rules—messy ad-hoc rules. And the rules worked. They not only worked; they lasted.

It turned out other common pool resources across the United States and across the world were also being managed sustainably by these ad-hoc rules. They were different every time. They didn’t always work, but sometimes they did.

And Lynn Ostrom discovered something very important: the Tragedy of the Commons isn’t a tragedy. It’s not inevitable… It’s the Problem of the Commons, and problems have solutions.

The rules of the English Commons were certainly ad-hoc. While they eventually came to have specific names like Estovers, the rights that were granted and who they were granted changed over time. The English Commons lasted for hundreds of years, and only ended with the ‘Inclosure Acts of the 17th century onwards.

I’m currently reading Common as Air, in which Lewis Hyde examines the problems of the commons from the perspective of history. He looks at the ideas and opinions of the founders of the United States of America

When I’m finished I’ll be interested to compare Hyde’s philosophical and historical conclusions with those of Elinor Ostrom’s more empirical approach. 

The hedonic treadmill

About thirty years ago, Philip Brickman, a social psychologist at Northwestern University, organised a team of researchers to investigate the happiness levels of lottery winners. The team found that while lottery winners were initially elated upon landing their great fortune, those feelings of elations tended to dissipate rapidly. As the winners recalibrated their happiness levels, many of the activities they had previously enjoyed (such as reading or sitting down to a good meal) became less pleasurable over time, such that within a few months, the wealthy winners reported being no happier than they had been before hitting the jackpot. Brickman called this adaptational phenomenon the “hedonic treadmill”: the term was dead on in describing the human predisposition to feel entitled to today what we used to feel thankful for yesterday.

Youngme Moon provides a neat summary the hedonic treadmill (Different p. 59).

What strikes me about the hedonic treadmill is that it feels at first counter-intuitive. Once you understand it, however, you start to see it everywhere. The happiness that you feel on getting a new job, new house or accomplishing a goal doesn’t last, you find yourself no more or less happy than you were before.

There are three things that interest me here. The first is the idea of “entitlement”, the second has something to do with occasional rediscovery and the last concerns intrinsic motivation.

“Entitlement” is a word that is often used disparagingly in the UK to describe the behavior of people in lower socioeconomic brackets. This probably has largely to do with the government’s use of the word. It’s always perplexed me, though. I’ve seen more entitlement among people in the middle class (or above) than I have among so-called “benefits scroungers.”

The idea of hedonic adaptation (as well as loss aversion) helps to explain this. As we acquire more and more economic goods, we temporarily get a boost in happiness. Loss aversion ensures that we don’t want to lose what we already have, but hedonic adaptation gives the illusion that we’ll only be happier if we acquire more. This comes across as entitlement. We deserve what we have. After all, we’ve worked hard for it (unlike those people we choose to look down on).

Brickman, Dan Coates and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman discuss a similar phenomenon in the paper that originally described hedonic adaptation.

American soldiers in World War II with a high school education or better had greater chances of being promoted but were less happy with their promotion chances… The better educated soldiers saw themselves as doing poorly compared to their peers in civilian life or their peers who were already officers. Less well educated soldiers, on the other hand, saw themselves as reasonably well off compared to similar others in civilian life or their peers in the service.

That feeling of “doing poorly” perfectly describes what I’m referring to here as entitlement. Both in myself and others, I’ve found this sort of entitlement to an ugly, somewhat inexplicable trait. Getting my head around hedonic adaptation means that I better understand why it happens. That doesn’t make it any less ugly, but it starts to get at how it could be changed.

As I read more about hedonic adaptation, I started to see some patterns where I felt I was able to escape hedonic adaptation. Dan Gilbert made a quip in Stumbling on Happiness (p. 130) that helped to bring this into focus for me.

When we have an experience­ — hearing a particular sonata, making love with a particular person, watching the sun set from a particular window of a particular room — on successive occasions, we quickly begin to adapt to it, and the experience yields less pleasure each time. Psychologists call this habituation, economists call it declining marginal utility, and the rest of us call it marriage.

It occurred to me that there a certain experiences that never seem to get old: the drums coming in on The National’s “Fake Empire”, rereading certain Borges stories, going on a walk on the weekend with my family. And I think the key here is rediscovery. I don’t return to Fake Empire or The Garden of Forking Paths that often: once a year at most, if that.

Our weekend walks are designed to be different. We try to avoid doing the same thing, doing the same walk. Each walk is a new adventure: we walk new paths, find new rocks, identify new plants. There’s a risk with this approach. We’ve been on some terrible walks, but we’ve discovered some great ones, too. As with books and music, we occasionally return to the great walks, usually when we want to share them with some friends, but we don’t return to them again and again.

This seems to point to one way of avoiding the treadmill of hedonic adaptation: that original pleasure doesn’t dissipate if you return to an experience occasionally. However, I’m not entirely sure if this is enough to deal with the problem of entitlement. A job isn’t something you can return to occasionally. A house must be lived in. A goal, once accomplished, is likely to lose its lustre.

I think the key probably lies in focusing on intrinsic motivation, choosing to focus on the challenges of a job or career, rather than the promotion; seeing a house as a base of operations, rather than as an investment; choosing goals that make real difference rather than those that improve your net worth. It’s an ideal, and not an easy one at that. I’m nowhere near living in that way, but I’m starting to believe that just trying is well worth it.

The grain of prevailing wisdom

[I]n the mid-nineteenth century there was simply no context for such a radical overhaul of geological theory; no other pieces of knowledge with which the theory itself could fit. A mainstay of nineteenth-century geology was a belief in the existence of enormous land-bridges which had at one point joined the world’s continents, but had since then crumbled into the oceans. These land-bridges explained the existence of the same species on different landmasses, and seemed far more plausible than mobile continents.

In 1912, therefore, [Alfred] Wegener was arguing against the grain of prevailing wisdom: if his theory were correct, it would nullify many of the founding assumptions of nineteenth-century geology. Worse still, Wegener was an intruder, a trespasser on the turf of the geologists. For his main field of research was meteorology – he was a pioneer in weather-balloon study and a specialist in Greenland, where he led several successful, and one fatal, Arctic research expeditions. How could a weatherman presume to dismantle at a single stroke the complex and magnificent edifice of nineteenth-century geology?

Robert MacFarlane describes the reasons why Alfred Wegener‘s theory of continental drift wasn’t widely accepted by geologists until the 1950s.

This reminds me of Thomas Kuhn‘s notion of a “paradigm shift.” Specifically, it brings to mind his contention that two scientific paradigms are incommensurable, that the propositions of one paradigm are impossible to understand from the viewpoint of another paradigm.

This clash of world views interests me: when it is impossible to get across your point because a certain world view is so entrenched. Wegener’s approach is laudable: he simply kept explaining his theory, publishing and republishing The Origins of Continents and Oceans three times between 1915 and 1929. But is this laudable only because when know he was eventually proven to be (mostly) right? If he’d been wrong would his persistence seem laudable or simply a bit crazy?

Everyone who disagrees with someone else is likely to cast themselves as the hero, squaring up bravely to ignorance or just plain idiocy. Certainly having evidence to back up your claim helps,

Certainly, this is the ideal of the scientific method (or of a Lean startup): have a hypothesis, test a hypothesis, it either works or it doesn’t. The results of the experiment give us the answer.

Too often, though, this isn’t quite how it works out. A Kuhn points out, that evidence can be interpreted through a certain paradigm. The experiment design is questioned. The validity of the results is questioned. The interpretation of the results is questioned. Someone whose paradigm doesn’t allow for the results will always find something to question.

Getting to a point where we can listen and talk across these paradigmatic chasms seems vital, but perhaps it’s overly idealistic. In Kuhn’s analysis, this never happens. One paradigm eventually replaces another paradigm, but in the mean time two communities work as if in isolation from one another.

I’m idealistic, though. Even knowing that two competing paradigms are incommensurable probably won’t stop me from trying to do the impossible: trying to understand both. Or trying to understand one paradigm although I’m firmly placed in another.

Clearly, it’s time for me to go back and reread Kuhn.

Fugitive phenomena

Some of the terms I collected mingle oddness and familiarity in the manner that Freud calls uncanny: peculiar in their particularity, but recognisable in that they name something conceivable, if not instantly locatable. Ammil is a Devon term for the thin film of ice that lacquers all leaves, twigs and grass blades when a freeze follows a partial thaw, and that in sunlight can cause a whole landscape to glitter. It is thought to derive from the Old English ammel, meaning “enamel”, and is an exquisitely exact word for a fugitive phenomenon I have several times seen, but never before named.

Robert MacFarlane describing one of the disappearing words he’s collected which describe landscapes and the natural world.

I’m fascinated by language, and I’m drawn to these uncanny words that describe something specific by familiar. They have the alienated majesty of my own thoughts or observations captured in a single word, and they often have the power to change the way I perceive the world.

The Japanese word wabi sabi is one example of this. When I first heard the word, it immediately resonated with me. The idea of something becoming more beautiful with use was something I’d been thinking about already.

Learning about wabi sabi helped to crystalize some of those ideas, but also changed the way I perceived the world. It’s a concept I’ve returned to again and again when thinking about how things should be designed. Knowing the word fundamentally changed the way I experienced the world.

MacFarlane comments on this in his article.

Smeuse is an English dialect noun for “the gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal”; now I know the word smeuse, I notice these signs of creaturely commute more often.

Not only is smeuse an amazing word, but it’s had the same effect on me. During my walks around our village I’ve noticed smeuses much more often than I did before now that I have a word for them.

It’s this point — naming something means noticing it — that lies behind MarFarlane’s project to collect seldom-used words that describe the landscape and natural phenomenon.

A recently published version of the Oxford Junior Dictionary removed natural words, such as “acorn”, in favor of digital words, such as “blog.” MacFarlane places his project in this context:

The substitutions made in the Oxford Junior Dictionary – the outdoor and the natural being displaced by the indoor and the virtual – are a small but significant symptom of the simulated screen life many of us live. The terrain beyond the city fringe is chiefly understood in terms of large generic units (“field”, “hill”, “valley”, “wood”). It has become a blandscape. We are blasé, in the sense that Georg Simmel used that word in 1903, meaning “indifferent to the distinction between things”.

There is a relationship between our experience and the words we use to describe it. It works in both directions. As our interactions with nature decline, so too will our our use of words that describe specific natural phenomenon. Those “fugitive phenomena” are less likely to be noticed, so why would we need words to describe them?

I worry that we’re spending less and less time in nature. I worry that we’ll lose more than just words. I worry that we losing the lessons that are learned when you spend time climbing a tree, buiding a den or losing yourself in the woods: self-reliance, cooperation, close observation of your surroundings. I worry even more because these skills aren’t prioritized by our current education systems.

I’m not convinced that collecting these words will necessarily change this on its own, but I believe that MacFarlane’s project is worthwhile as a part of a larger project to reverse this trend. Collecting these words takes a stand for taking the time notice these things that are rarely noticed. If they spark the curiosity of just a few people or change the way they view the natural world, then it’s well worth it.

The practice of awareness

The practice of awareness takes us below the reasonableness that we’d like to think we live with and then we start to see something quite fascinating, which is the drama of our inner dialogue, of the stories that go through our minds and the feelings that go through our heart, and we start to see in this territory it isn’t so neat and orderly and, dare I say it, safe or reasonable. So in the practice of awareness which as gone on for centuries after centuries and millennium after millennium, human beings have asked themselves, Hmmmm, how do I engage this process in a way I don’t become too frightened by what it might unfold or too complacent by avoiding it. This is the delicate work of awareness.

Rebecca Solnit’s observations on what we learn when we give ourselves time to be aware (A Field Guide to Getting Lost, pp 198-199) struck a chord the moment I read it.

A few months ago, I started making time in the mornings to “sit quiet.” It’s funny, though. Though it may outwardly appear quiet outwardly, inwardly it’s anything but.

I’d hoped for something else when I started doing this. I’d hoped for the opposite. It’s cheesy, I had hoped for “inner peace.” I don’t think that’s how I put it to myself, but that’s what I wanted. A place to go to find a sort of silence. A refuge from the constant barrage of everyday life. That’s not what I’ve gotten, though. At least not so far.

The result of sitting quiet two seemingly contradictory things: awareness and focus.

“The drama of our inner dialogue” is absolutely what I experience. The moment I sit down and stop doing, my mind sets off in any number of directions. I think about work, family, the book I’m reading, an snippet from an article I read months ago, a television show I’m watching. These threads of thought come thick and fast. As they do, I let them come, take note and try return my thoughts to my breath, my body or my physical surroundings.

This doesn’t happen immediately, though. Often, my own thoughts carry me away in some direction I had no intention of going. It takes a while before I realize this has happened. I’m so busy following the thread of my own thought that I don’t even realize that I’ve done it.

Sitting, being aware of what I’m thinking, bringing my thoughts back: all of this has helped me learn to focus. Even when I’m not doing this, I’m now much more able to know when I’ve stopped paying attention to a person, a conversation or a meeting. It still takes a while, but I’m much better at bringing myself into the room. I’m getting better at paying attention to other people, rather than what I’m thinking, what I want to say next.

The other benefit is one I didn’t really expect: I know my own mind better. By giving myself time to sit quiet and pay attention to the swirl of thoughts and ideas in my head, I actually know what I’m thinking. I know what I’m worried about. I know what I’m excited about.

When I started, I thought sitting quiet might provide an escape from my thoughts. It hasn’t. As Solnit points out, at first this was frightening. It still is sometimes, when I come across a fear or a worry I wasn’t aware of. Knowing about them changes them somehow. No longer lurking the shadows, they’re less frightening. Just knowing about them makes it easier to breath.

The same goes for ideas I’m excited about. I think there’s a fear in exciting ideas that they’ll never get done, that they’ll disappear into some corner of my mind. Slowing down and spending time with those thoughts makes that less scary. By knowing which of my own ideas are exciting, I’m better able to choose what to do next.

Solnit calls this the “practice” of awareness. This is important, I think. Practice is actually doing something, moving beyond theory, learning through making mistakes, learning through getting it wrong. There are times when I sit down and my mind is a riot of thought. I spend a lot of time chasing one stray thought or another. At the end, it seems I’ve not done a very good job of bringing my thoughts back. But I’ve practiced. Practice also means the way of doing something, something you do over and over again. It’s not so much that “there’s always next time,” it’s more that “there’s always this time.”