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Observations and a Meaningful Life

When I first started the exercise of purposeful noticing, a friend living in Singapore wrote me, wondering about the value of observing the same location repeatedly vs. seeking out new places and things. I have family members who return to Venice, Italy every year, never tiring of it, always seeing something new in the familiar. There’s something to be said for pushing your boundaries within confined parameters, and my friend’s comment reminded me of an exercise of Ann Berthoff’s, which had students observing an object for 10 days in a row and writing about it in their journals. Through this activity, the writers grew to know their chosen object in new ways while interacting with it–sometimes talking to it, sometimes analyzing it and breaking it down into its parts, other times imagining how the object might be used–each writer taking a different approach.

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Light Play–Patterns of the Afternoon’s Dappled Light on Front Steps

Berthoff, who was interested in the interaction between reading and writing, suggested that people make meaning as they read, and that language’s power comes through writer’s attempts to construct meaning while looking for patterns and explore the tensions in a text, both while reading and while writing. I recall the photo of splotches on a page in one of her books, Forming, Thinking, Writing, that when viewed, the brain translates into a Dalmatian. You can see how your brain does this for yourself here on this link. The recognition of a dog occurs because our brains search for patterns and connections. This wrestling with our confusion and making patterns out of it is actually what enables us to come to know what we know. Not only that, this shaping is a recursive process of naming and renaming, not a linear one with the goal of getting to the end product and then moving on.

From this foundational view point, we can understand that confusion is actually valuable. Confusion actually leads us into an interactive, exploratory composing process. When actively working with our confusion, we come to see how meaning is fluid, not static. We are wise, then, not to rush to conclusions, or be too quick to line up our points in an argument. It is our play with ideas, our extended experimentation and exploration, that is essential to deep thinking and understanding. We explore as we write, we think as we write, and through that, understanding grows. I believe this process actually holds true in many areas–whether exploring a question or a train of thought in science, or experimenting with materials in art. It is the extended play and continued exploration that expands our understanding of anything’s complexity, and that, in the end, can bring us back to a relationship with wonder.

Berthoff’s ideas resurface for me now as I reflect on the past nine days of purposeful noticing, and observe what is happening as I continue this practice. I’ve not been able to get out and see new places much, and have, therefore, needed to observe more closely things that are familiar, that I see every day, and try and give them focus through directed attention. As a result, I’ve found myself asking questions I’ve not thought of much or even at all. I’ve also noticed how observations lead to further observations and additional questions that I wasn’t planning on. Additionally, I’m beginning to more frequently see how the things I’m noticing can serve as metaphors.

Here are my observations, and a brief synopsis of what they’ve led me to think and wonder. (The previous observations are in previous blog posts.)

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Reflection–sky and trees

Day 5: Outside my apartment, birds caw in distinctive ways, as if in conversation. What does their conversation mean? I’m noticing the birds in the tree I see through the window. How the tree that has died and been cut off half way has caused birds to shift from one tree to another. When something is taken away, we find another place to rest.

Day 6: At the swimming pool: The thin line between the surface of the water and underneath the water–two worlds separated but containing each other. So beautiful, this fluid division of realities.

Day 7: At the pool: The wobbly hexagonal shapes the broken surface of water makes on the shallow floor of a pool. What causes this shape to occur?

Reflections, Nehru Park, New Delhi

Day 8: Dragonflies. Yellow wings swarm and swirl by the hundreds above the trees outside my window. (Aren’t dragonflies viewed as good luck in Far East Asia?)

Day 9: Drooping collard greens in the window box. Leaves curling under, as if to hide  from the afternoon’s oven heat. What appears to be fragile, isn’t necessarily. But even plants have their limits as to how much heat they can tolerate.

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Reflection 3–sky, blossoms and trees

Day 10: The glistening leaves, toss white light as they blow outside the window. One brilliant pink flower, still and unmoved, beneath a harbor of vines.

Day 11: A layer of water spreads in thin pools across the stony green path. I walk across the sky and trees reflected there. Water allows stone to become mirror.

What are these observations? I don’t yet know, but surely many of the things I’ve listed here are metaphors for other things we experience in life. What do any our live’s observations bring? Our brains like to create patterns, as I said earlier. They want to make meaning. I want the whole of my life to be meaningful. Writing and seeing are ways into making meaning. They are tools for anyone who chooses to use and cultivate them, enabling us to wrestle with existence, and to find our place in the midst of the current of days flowing through us.

This belief about writing’s value leads me to wonder more of how, through writing, I can better help others find wrestle with and affirm their own questions, explorations, and discovery of meaning. Martin Seligman, talks about what makes a meaningful life. He has done research on what things actually allow people to have a more content, satisfying, whole life. There are three aspects: 1. a pleasant life–defined as experiences of positive emotion, 2. a life of engagement where time stops and you’re in the flow of what you’re doing, and 3. a meaningful life. He explains that the pleasant life, or the presence of positive emotion, is a largely hereditary and that these experiences habituate: Pleasurable experiences are great when you first experience them, but the thrill wears off fairly rapidly. A life that is satisfying is more than merely experiencing positive emotions. This is where the idea of “flow”, to use Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s term, comes in. Flow, Seligman explains, is where you are totally connected to what you’re involved in and are experiencing. When you are in flow, time stops for you during that activity. The recipe for experiencing flow, Seligman says, is knowing what your highest character strengths are, and then reshaping your life so that you are connecting to and using these character strengths at work, at play, and in all you do.

Here is his site where you can take a character strengths quiz to help you identify these strengths. Alternatively, you could also take the character strengths survey on this site. Both sites have quizzes for young people as well. The VIA site, gives a variety of ideas for each character strength of what you might do to enhance that strength in your life. The experience of living meaningfully, Seligman says, can be expanded through knowing what your highest strengths are, and then using them to belong to or be in the service of something larger than yourself.

Here are some specific things Seligman suggests in his talk that his research shows people can do to enhance well-being in their lives: 1. Take the character strengths quiz  and then once you know your strengths, design a beautiful day that uses and enhances these character strengths. Use savoring and mindfulness to deepen and enrich the day’s experience. 2. Gratitude visit: Write a 300 word testimonial directed to a person that you never properly thanked but that did something enormously important that changed your life’s direction. Make an appointment to meet with that person face to face and read them what you wrote. The positive effects of this experience last for several months, his research shows. 3. Strengths date: couples (and I suggest why not friends, or even enemies as a way of creating understanding) identify their character strengths through taking the strengths test (available on Seligman’s site and at the VIA character strengths site.) Then the couple designs a date or an evening where they both use their strengths. This activity serves to strengthen the bond between the couple. 4. Fun vs. philanthropy: Doing something philanthropic gives a sense of inner contentment or well-being that lasts longer than doing something fun. Do something that helps, enriches, or enhances other people’s lives, and your sense of well-being increases. Through research, Seligman discovered that the pursuit of meaning, in addition to doing things that people find engaging and where they are experiencing flow, contribute to people’s lives at the highest levels of well-being. If you’re interested in Seligman’s ideas, I encourage you to read his book Flourish, where he gives additional specific ideas and suggestions about what enables people’s lives to flourish, and how his research at the University of Pennsylvania is exploring what factors contribute to and nourish a meaningful life.  (View Seligman’s TED talk here about these ideas.)

Rock Crevice in the Afternoon: A hollow place.
Going Inside a Stone: Rock Crevice at Night, under florescent light.

I began my purposeful observation with the intention of making some cracks in my busyness so that I might find ways to live more purposefully, intentionally, meaningfully. I’m finding the close observations of tiny things are leading me towards some bigger observations and questions. How can I more purposefully keep my aspirations alive? In the work I do each day, how can I continue to renew those aspirations as I apply the skills I have to meet other people’s needs? What I’ve been given and what I’ve nurtured, strengthened and learned, is to be shared. How can I keep that focus before me so life’s meaning continues to deepen? We look and we look again. We explore and play. Step by step, we grow towards understanding of what it is to walk on this earth.

What insights do you have into what deepens your life’s meaning?

1 thought on “Observations and a Meaningful Life”

  1. Hi Anna,
    That was a beautiful and inspiring blog.
    I’m so impressed with your concise and articulate recapturing of Seligman’s work and messages.

    Thank you for sharing the gift of your experience and knowledge.

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