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I sat this week on my plastic chair tucked into the reeds at our ‘secret lake’ and watched a water rail step through the mud. They are notoriously shy wading birds that you might hear but never set eyes on. It squeals like someone being hurt and is cousin to the moorhen and coot. I watched him for about 15 minutes, I say ‘about’ because I do not take a watch to the lake. The idea is to practice the art of paying attention without any technical distractions.
My muse, Mary Oliver, writes that attention is the beginning of devotion. It is also an essential component of the creative life. Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of the modern world and the continuous pressure to do more, we rarely carve out these spaces to simply ‘be’.
I have spent many early mornings and late afternoons at the lake, listening to the water rail scream. There is a family of coots I have never seen, and the heron takes my arrival as his cue to leave. However, the quiet pocket of time gives me access to thoughts and emotions that would otherwise leak out at inopportune times. Once I have weathered those, there is a clear passage into the stillness where inspiration dwells. Here, the water rail with her mouse-grey cleavage and dainty head, walks past me unaware. I am at one with my surroundings, her surroundings, our surroundings.
Whether you are writing or simply seeking to learn from the water rail that stalks the reedbeds near you, intentional time outs are a great place to start. Here are some ideas to try:
If you have children, it’s hard to make space for silence, but it’s not impossible. Children have a remarkable capacity for paying attention. They, like us, just need to practise. A sit spot is a defined period of time during which you sit still and notice your five senses. In our family it always takes place outdoors. We started with three minutes and now our eldest children (seven and six) are quite happy to spend 10 minutes quietly (ish). When the allocated time is up, we share what we experienced.
This is similar to a sit spot but you are on the move. I often do this when I’m out with the kids but want to connect with the natural world more intentionally. I touch the hawthorn berries, taste the sloes, smell the damp river, identify the wren’s call from the robin’s and say hello to the things I see. A pocket field guide is a great addition to this practice as it empowers you to name the things around you and thereby acknowledge their inherent dignity.
Taking a bit of space to catch up on social media is one thing but why not spend five minutes clearing a little mind clutter? I have a voracious appetite for poetry. I like to read a line and then ruminate on it for a while. Call it contemplation, meditation or mindfulness, it doesn’t matter. If poetry is not your thing, pick a flower, a blade of grass or just close your eyes and picture your favourite place. In a recent workshop I facilitated we pondered the inherent dignity of a raisin so perhaps try that some time!
I would love to know how you tap into the creative undercurrent that flows beneath our productivity-driven culture. Get in touch with your ideas and if you would like to attend one of my Still Point retreats, get in touch here.