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.”

Between two frames

The speed of a cinema film is 24 frames per second. God knows how many frames per second flicker past our daily perception. But it is as if at the brief moments I’m talking about, suddenly and disconcertingly we see between two frames. We come upon a part of the visible which wasn’t destined for us. Perhaps it was destined for — night-birds, reindeer, ferrets, eels, whales… Perhaps it was destined not only for animals but for lakes, slow-growing trees, ores, carbon…

Our customary visible order is not the only one: it co-exists with other orders. Stories of fairies, sprites, ogres were a human attempt to come to terms with this co-existence. Hunters are continually aware of it and so can read signs we do not see. Children feel it intuitively, because they have the habit of hiding behind things. There they discover the interstices between different sets of the visible.

Last night before bed, I read John Berger’s essay “Opening a Gate” in Why Look at Animals? This section struck me, perhaps because it was so similar to what I was trying to get at when wrote about the idea of the beyond-world. I like the idea of multiple beyond-worlds, not destined for us that we occasionally catch glimpses of, perhaps out of the corner of our eye, perhaps head on.

When I wrote about the beyond-world, I mentioned Shoal Creek in Austin. It’s right in the middle of the city. There is a sidewalk that runs along it. Once evening, I was walking on that sidewalk and came upon an owl sitting on a branch. It was directly in front of me and staring right at me. I stopped in my tracks and stared at it for a moment. Perhaps longer than a mere moment, it’s hard to say. The world around me and the bird seemed to shift: colors changed and there was an electricity in the air. It may simply have been that the sun was going down. In fact, whenever I see the word “gloaming” that moment comes back to me. It alone captures the sudden shift of colors and texture that came so suddenly and just as suddenly disappeared.

The other thing that Berger’s description of a different perception found between two frames reminded me of was a lot of the writing of Haruki Murakami. He describes this as combining objective language and personal language. Murakami’s personal language feels like a beyond-world, something seen by—perhaps destined for—one person only. It’s the interplay between the world everyone agrees on and one individual’s beyond-world that I enjoy so much about Murakami’s writing.

In some some sense, this feels like what much fiction writing and some non-fiction writing, like the writing of Rebecca Solnit and Robert Macfarlane. Perhaps this is only true of the authors I love—such as Calvino, Borges, Carter and García Márquez—who take their queue as much from folktale and mythology as they do from science and reason. I return again and again to the writers who are able to communicate the internal life of a character or themselves.


Emptiness is the track on which the centered person moves.

In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, (p. 50) Rebecca Solnit quotes the Tibetan sage Je Tsongkhapa. She goes on to quote Stephen Batchelor in Buddhism without Beliefs, who points out that Tsongkhapa uses the Tibetan word shul to refer to a track:

…a mark that remains after that which made it has passed by–a footprint, for example. In other contexts, shul is used to describe the scarred hollow in the ground where a house once stood, the channel worn through rock where a river runs in flood, the indentation in the grass where an animal slept last night. All of these are shul: the impression of something that used to be there. A path is a shul because it is an impression in the ground left by the regular tread of feet, which has kept it clear of obstructions and maintained it for the use of others. As a shul, emptiness can be compared to the impression of something that used to be there. In this case, such an impression is formed by the indentations, hollows, marks, and scars left by the turbulence of selfish craving.

The impression of something that is no longer there is a powerful idea. It reminds me, yet again, of Antonio Machado’s powerful poem Se hace camino al andar.

Wanderer, there is no road,
the road is made by walking.


What is a ruin, after all? It is a human construction abandoned to nature, and one of the allure of ruins in the city is that of wilderness: a place full of promise of the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.

Rebecca Solnit, discussing what attracts us to ruins, in A Field Guide To Getting Lost (pp. 88-89). I’ve always been fascinated the cracked sidewalk and the plants that grow in those cracks. Even there, we can see nature undoing what we have so recently done, despite our efforts to hold nature at bay. And this does hold a certain fascination.

My brother once gave me a framed copy of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Ozymandias, which he’d typeset in one of the classes he was taking at library school. It still sits on my desk at home. This is certainly part of the fascination with ruins: the desert sands overtaking a powerful man’s great work, the thought of everyone’s eventual end.

I think there is something else that fascinates, though. Ruins capture, almost overwhelm, the imagination. I remember the feeling of being overwhelmed by an unknown past when I walked through the ruins of Ostia Antica or Chaco Canyon. Ruins are invitation to hear stories you don’t yet know. As I stepped through the hushed ruins, I could almost hear them whispering those stories to me: story upon story upon story, waiting to be discovered. You can make up your own stories up—as Rebecca Solnit did in the ruins of the hospital that inspired her meditation on ruins—or you can seek it out. I think both are valid.

Ruins are inviting and fascinating because they tap into the deep human need for stories. Our efforts at preservation are an attempt to preserve what Solnit calls grandmother sources: the stories that we don’t already know, that don’t fit into the grand narrative, that offer different and valuable perspectives, that ensure we learn from the mistakes of the past.

Perhaps these forgotten stories are a part of what Solnit means when she speaks of “the unknown with all its epiphanies and dangers.”

Grandmother sources

The histories I’ve written have often been hidden, lost, neglected, too broad or too amorphous to show up in others’ radar screens, histories that are not neat fields that belong to someone but the paths and waterways that meander through many fields and belong to no one. Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend primarily from painters. Just as the purely patrilineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branches and tangles than straight lines. These other sources I called the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit’s idea of grandmother sources (from A Field Guide To Getting Lost, pp.58-59) is a neat shorthand way of referring to a problem I have with many books. I find that non-fiction (and to an extent, fiction) books that I get enjoy most explore a topic, rather than building an argument. Strangely, this is true even when I agree with the argument that is being made. The inevitable exclusions and cherry picking that such an approach requires result in a work that lacks depth. On the other hand, openly and honestly exploring a topic—including stories and facts that might interfere with a simple, straightforward narrative—results in something I can immerse myself in and return to again and again. These are the kind of books that I learn something from every time I read them.

Solnit’s grandmother sources, and my preference for books that use them, strongly reminds me of Chimamanda Adichie’s plea to reject the single story in order to empower and humanize people that might not fit into the dominant narrative. It also brings to mind Matthew Chalmers’s idea of beautiful seams that allow many digital tools to flourish, rather than one dominant tool.

There is also something of Franklin’s gambit here: post-hoc rationalisation disguised as considered and informed decision making (though there are those who are honest enough to admit that most of us discover where we are headed when we arrive) . This results in a teleological history—the inevitable march of progress, manifest destiny—that erases stories from the past and obscures the many possibilities and opportunities of the present.