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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?


Finding Space–An Invitation

Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing further research about Italian immigrants in San Francisco, San Francisco in the early 1900’s, reading some of Billy Collins’ poetry, editing a couple of articles to send out for possible publication, barbecuing pizzas with my husband and friends, listening in Spanish to some cultural programs about food in various regions of Spain, along with various other things important for me to keep abreast of things at my work, which this year, again, includes totally new systems and ways of approaching things.

Just One Thing—Simplify.

About three times a week I get to the swimming pool, the gym about twice, and I aim to go on walks, though recently these have been fairly short. While I’ve done a number of things I want to do, drawing, as I was doing during the summer months, has now diminished to less than one page of drawings a week in my sketchbook. Books I want to read wait on a table. The clarinet I finally got out of the carry case last year with the intention learning to play currently sits on the shelf. I want to feed the things I’m passionate about. The reality is that each of these things takes time. To sum it up, there are many more things I want to do than I have time to do. Whatever it is we want to do or be takes practice, and this includes reshaping our life to live in a way that enhances our own well-being and sense of wholeness. For decades, I have pondered Thoreau’s quote from Walden, “Simplify. Simplify.” This still isn’t easy to do.

This past week I viewed the program, “Killer Stress–A National Geographic Special with Robert Sapolsky.” Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist, biologist, and researcher at Stanford University, explores the effects of stress–how it ages us more quickly, reduces our health, and cuts into our well-being–and yet how multi-tasking and stress is actually valued and promoted in our culture. Stress is difficult to escape. We all live in a social system. How can we live as free people, rather than slaves to a system that positions competition, power and financial success as centrally important? Sopolsky’s research lead him to observe how a troop of baboons, animals that are known to be aggressive, combative and nonsocial, became peacefully cooperative and nonaggressive after the dominant males suddenly died off as a result of contracting tuberculosis. The encouraging news in this study is that even though aggressive and destructive habits had been the way the baboons had functioned for decades, when they entered a new social construct where the aggressive males died, the whole community was able to become peaceable, even when new baboons entered the community. (See more at “Warrior Baboons Give Peace a Chance.”) Maybe there is hope for us too.

In his essay, “Slavery in Massachusetts,” Thoreau says, “It is not enough to be industrious; so are the ants. What are you industrious about?” In his essay, Thoreau admonishes readers to place their humanity before money, before laws– “policy is not morality,” suggesting that if we want to live humanely, we must place the way we relate to each other at the center. We must consider what it means to live wholly, what we mean when we say we want to live not as slaves to industry, but more fully.

What are we industrious about? What do we want to harvest?

So, how does this hopeful change where baboons learn how to live together peacefully apply to our own lives? Many of us continue to live in aggressive societies where community and connectedness are not held as central values, where diverse ways of seeing, being and unique contributions are not seen or held dear because the system is rolling down the track like a locomotive train, intent on getting on with whatever its own vision is. In her recent article on Brain Pickings, “The Shortness of life: Seneca on Busyness and The Art of Living Wide Rather Than Living Long,” writer Maria Popova quotes Roman philosopher, Seneca “It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested…Life is long if you know how to use it.” This is a stunning, paradoxical thought. We have time! As Thoreau suggested, it’s not that we’re busy doing something–what is it we are busy about that eats the time that would allows to understand we are living fully? Are we nurturing our passions–the things that makes us feel connected to our heart’s deep need and fully alive? If life is long enough if we use the time we have to fully live, how do we reshape our lives to do that. If, like many of us, we find we need to be on the institution train for a period of time, how can we still make use of the station stops? How do we open the window and feel the breeze and make sure to look up and notice the dragon flies swarming above the nearby trees?

In the hopes of recovering more life and a sense of space inside myself, I’m aiming to practice the act of purposeful noticing–looking for one small thing each day to connect myself more to the heart of the days I’m living–to the physical world, and to the life of those around me. I want to release myself from the world of walls, at least briefly every day, and every day remind myself that I am alive in a physical world full of wonder. I reside in a body that is allowed to wander and walk here on this earth. Walking, Ferris Jabr tells us in his recent article in the , “Why Walking Helps Us Think,” not only improves our memory, attention, and staves off degenerating brain cells, it also, through its rhythmic quality, creates a mental state that nurtures creativity and innovative ideas. Now that’s wonderful news!

I’ve decided to take a small, probably slow walk each day, and will couple it with a practice Naomi Shihab Nye suggests people consider–the practice of writing down just a few lines a day, maybe three, for example, of things I notice and observe. A short walk and three lines are manageable. I plan to try this for 40 days, a length of time long enough to notice change but short enough to feel doable. My desire is to observe how this small act might shift my thinking, perceptions of time, and way of being and living to allow me more of a sense of freedom and connectedness to the physical world around me.

I began my first observation yesterday, with noticing the tree in the school yard that was suddenly cut down. The tree has been a focal point of observation I’ve returned to many a morning over the last seven years as I’ve watched birds gather in that tree–crows and kites mostly. Last year, the tree was struck by lightning and was in distress. Its center branches had dead. Then, yesterday morning, I heard the sudden crack from my apartment as the tree’s center trunk broke apart–the result of the school’s gardeners pulling it down. Only this past Tuesday I had been standing next to it, noticing the sap dripping down its sides at various points on its trunk, as if it were grieving over the recent difficulties it had experienced. All day, the gardeners were cutting up the trunk and branches. Now the tree is half its original size. Everything changes. What was once present, is suddenly gone.

Observation: Lime tree with fruit and blossoms

The photo here shows today’s observation, our lime tree, one year old and putting out an abundance of leaves, blossoms and tiny fruit. It is a happy tree, ready for a larger pot. We hauled up several new plant containers four flights to place on our balcony with the hope of enhancing our garden there. The lime tree is thriving. We had orange groves the entire time I was growing up. When I smelled the one blossom that’s currently open, I was reminded of my mother who always sent me orange blossoms in the mail after leaving home. Citrus blossoms are always sweet.

I’ll post later the other things I observe in the coming week, and invite you to try this along with me and let me know what subtle things begin to shift in your own awareness over the course of time–what it is you discover through the practice? Do you feel an increased sense of health, awareness of nature, gratitude, wholeness, connectedness to life, your neighborhood, or the world? What is it that happens when we practice grounding ourselves in place, when we pay attention to the suchness of things? If forty days is too long for you, try 20 or four and see how that goes–whatever feels right for you in your desire to shift things in your life.

As E. E. Cummings writes,

being to timelessness as it’s to time,
love did no more begin than love will end;
where nothing is to breathe to stroll to swim
love is the air the ocean and the land…

Love is the voice under all silences.

I want to listen inside that silence and notice the miracle of love that holds me up day by day.

Everything is miracle Peter Meyer explains in his song, “Everything is Holy Now.”