Jim Reynolds, an old friend and brilliant songwriter, has a song about a hyperactive friend of his (not me) and it’s called “slow down”. I know exactly what he means. When I look at posts by my young friends on Facebook they all seem ceaselessly busy and I’m sometimes tempted to feel a bit superior; tempted that is, until I think about my own restless approach to life. Madame takes a different line. For her there is nothing more important in life than another Simenon novel. I wish I could do it too, but try as I will I can’t. If my bottom stays still for more than ten seconds an undetectable micro switch goes off in my brain and I have to look for something to do. Not just anything, though, but something important.
So, in a massively convoluted way, I’ve had to make slowing down important. I’ve had to turn it into a kind of practice like Tai Chi, in order to replace the mindlessness of restless and unfocused activity for the mindfulness of kneading dough, cooking, botanising, drawing or gardening. I’ve discovered along the way that, although I find silence uncomfortable, I really need it, at least a bit of it, every day. My longest ever period of silence was a full week at a Franciscan convent in Dorset. I nearly went crazy and eventually hiked across the fields to the nearest village to find a telephone box. But I profited enormously from the exercise – it was like a detox for a cluttered mind.
More recently my therapy sessions had significant periods of silence. Both in group and individual settings psychoanalytic psychotherapists, like mine, could remain silent for the whole session if no-one spoke. At first it was very uncomfortable but I found it became a warm and secure place, my safe place. I went to Robin- whom I’ve never adequately thanked – completely blocked, and over a period of several years he gave me a space in which to unravel the knots. Since my sessions ended I’ve written in excess of half a million words, about a half of which I’ve published here, in over 500 posts. That’s not a boast as much as a plea to anyone who feels they’re churning their life away in pointless time filling. Do something about it; get some professional help – it’s expensive but wasted lives are much more expensive. This is not an advert for psychotherapy – I haven’t been holding back about my undisclosed occupation or anything like that. But I have spent many years working with people who never seem to reach their full potential. Life’s a bit of a project, if you see what I mean, and every project risks failure.
For example, you might get quite eccentric. Last night, walking back from the allotment with my head full of the latest plant I/D book I found myself counting species of grass – five, if you’re at all interested – and now they’re in a little vase by my desk waiting for me to examine their ligules and auricles. I could go on with all sorts of examples of mindfulness, Brother Lawrence; door handle theology and so forth but I won’t because it might sound as if I’m trying to be an expert. For me, slowing down is all about paying minute attention to something; getting completely absorbed in some tiny particular of life. For the young Korean (I think) couple on the Green it’s about getting the flick of the fingers exactly right at the end of a fluid movement, for the two kick boxers we saw last night it seemed to be about making wonderful sweeping and interconnected movements like dancers, without colliding. I’m too old for that so it’s ligules and auricles for me.
But when we walk along the canal, for instance, the more plants I recognise and can name, the richer and the more outrageously beautiful the earth seems. Our grandson has spotted a puss moth and a garden tiger on their allotment in the last two days and we’re totally proud that he’s taking an interest already. It’s amazing what you can find out there if you just take your foot off the throttle.