Life is made up of events. There are big events: a new job; the birth of a child; a special holiday. Then there are everyday events. Work tasks; picking up the kids; cooking a meal; meeting friends or family. But what of the times between these events? Are these significant too? Or are they ‘dead’ time spent waiting for the next noteworthy thing to happen?
Seeing the empty spaces
At art college many years ago, I engaged in a drawing exercise called ‘negative space’. There was a jumbled pile of chairs in the studio which we had been asked to draw. But we were not to look at the chairs. The idea was to draw the spaces between the clutter of legs, seats and backs. It was a whole new way of perceiving. A useful method for drawing, but also more than that. This exercise stood out for me because it turned my usual way of seeing on its head. Mindfulness practice has built on this curious experience.
A few years on, the early days of my teaching career were intense. I hurried between lessons, duties and meetings, doing my best to stay on top of things. From the moment students arrived through the door, I focused on them. It might take hours to notice that the morning fog had brightened into glorious sunshine. Or that I was feeling stressed. Sometimes I needed to walk to a different part of the building. I began to make a practice of using these precious moments to myself for walking meditation. Feeling my feet on the ground helped marshal my busy mind. Tuning in with how I was feeling made a difference. I might notice irritation or worry. Like most people, I have a natural resistance to unpleasant feelings. But I knew from experience that being aware of how I felt made it more manageable. The space between the timetabled events helped keep me sane. As the years went on, my practice of mindfulness matured. I became better at taking a breather in the midst of a hectic day or lesson. This was good for everyone, not least my students.
Embracing natural pauses
Over time I discovered that, when I looked for them, there were plenty of natural pauses. For example, waiting for a buffering screen. Computer systems in schools are often slow. I spent a lot of time waiting for pages to load and found this stressful and frustrating. Especially with a class full of students waiting or a deadline to meet. But getting impatient did not make the computer run any faster, it made me lose my cool. One day I decided to see if I could change my response. Instead of getting flustered, I would take a mindful moment, to feel my feet on the floor and notice the rhythm of my breath. Over time, my attempt to change my habitual reaction paid off. And it had wider consequences: when I relaxed, my students were more likely to do the same. When I see the buffering circle, I no longer have that knee-jerk frustration that I used to have. I take a breather - well, most of the time! Waiting for the next thing to happen can seem like a waste of time, yet it can also be a gift.
Mindfulness flourishes in the pauses amid the demands of daily life. A moment of joy seeing a flock of birds swirling by; relaxing tightness in my jaw and neck.
The space between thoughts
And mindfulness also flourishes in the space between thoughts. Our thoughts tend to tell a story about us; what we like and what we don't like; where we’ve come from and where we’re going. And the story can dominate the mind. But there are always breaks in the story, gaps that we can learn to notice. These gaps are quieter than the thought-story. Here, we are able to notice the inner landscape of sensations in the body that tell us how we feel. And we are more able to notice the world around us in its uniqueness. Thoughts are still involved, but they are more interested in what is happening now.
Most of us focus on our thoughts, most of the time. But this crowds out the living experience of now. I may be walking somewhere, thinking about where I am going and what I will do when I get there. Passing a mature beech tree, something in my mind registers ‘tree’ and I move on without further interest. But if my mind is less full of thoughts, there is space to notice this tree: its shape and texture. How its buds are opening, or its leaves starting to crinkle. Its majesty.
Celebrating quiet moments
Our culture tends to prize cognitive intelligence over emotional intelligence. The reasoning abilities of one trump the connecting qualities of the other. Science eclipses the arts in education, economics, and politics. Yet at the same time, we are flooded with high levels of emotional stimulation. The lure of the internet; scandal on social media; drama on TV. All this stands counter to quieter, more reflective moments. I have seen this developing even in my own lifetime. What did we even do pre-internet and mobile phones? Have we come to see the times when nothing exciting is happening as unworthy of our attention? Even, somehow, wrong?
Yet, as individuals, we all recognise the value of friendship, creativity, and nature. If we stop to consider, we do know that the quieter moments are significant. And may even be the richest part of a day. They foster self-awareness and calm. They allow space for deeper emotions, whether of joy, or loss. They also help us contemplate issues that we would prefer to avoid, but might need our attention. Learning to be more mindful changes our value judgments about what is important. What looked like empty space contains a whole world.
"All of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone" Blaise Pascal
Photo by Omar Ramadan